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Posted on Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 6:01 a.m.

Ann Arbor City Council agrees to Argo Dam headrace redesign, putting safety concerns to rest

By Ryan J. Stanton


Ann Arbor City Council Member Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward, was the only council member to vote against a project to reconstruct the Argo Dam headrace and earthen embankment. He said he couldn't justify taking money from the water fund.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Fifth Ward Democrat Carsten Hohnke was the lone dissenter Monday night as the Ann Arbor City Council voted 10-1 in favor of reconstructing the Argo Dam headrace and earthen embankment in the Huron River.

Hohnke said he wasn't opposed to the $1.17 million project, but he couldn't justify taking $300,000 from the city's water fund to help pay for it.

"I came here tonight hoping very much to be able to support this," Hohnke said, expressing regret he had to vote no because of the source of funding.

"What I've heard was 'we should move forward with this because it's in the budget.' That doesn't make it appropriate," Hohnke said. "And I've not heard one argument for why it's appropriate to source these funds from the drinking water fund to support significant capital improvements to recreational amenities."

Hohnke wasn't alone in that opinion. Mayor John Hieftje and Council Member Margie Teall, D-4th Ward, ultimately voted in favor of the project, but expressed hesitations about tapping into the water fund to pay for part of it.

The project addresses the state's concerns about the stability of Argo Dam's earthen embankment, including toe drain repairs the city has put off for years. It also adds whitewater amenities at the end of the headrace and removes a canoe portage.

Earlier in the meeting, Hieftje joined Teall and Hohnke in an attempt to pass a resolution that would have prevented tapping the water fund for the project.

After a lengthy debate, the council voted 8-3 to strip that language from a resolution co-sponsored by Teall and Hohnke, both members of the city's Environmental Commission.

Council Members Christopher Taylor, D-3rd Ward, and Tony Derezinski, D-2nd Ward, at another point during Monday's discussion proposed funding the project entirely from the parks budget, which would have relieved the water fund of any obligation.

"I don't see an issue with using the water fund to do this," said Council Member Marcia Higgins, D-4th Ward, expressing concerns the city would have to use additional parks funding if water funds weren't used. That, city officials said, likely would force the city to defer improvements to locker rooms at Veterans Park an extra year.

Teall and Hohnke argued the $300,000 would be better spent implementing a Source Water Protection Plan, which was recommended by the Environmental Commission.

An amended version of their resolution passed 10-1 after some discussion. It directs the city administrator to find a way to fund future operations and maintenance costs for Argo and Geddes dams starting July 1, 2011, without continuing to tap into the water fund. That could mean the costs will have to come from the parks budget starting next year.

Only Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, objected. He said he was concerned the council was micromanaging the city administrator's budget.

Kunselman also said he thought it was hypocritical to worry about spending water fund revenue on recreational amenities when the city allocates thousands from its water and sewer funds to public art through the city's Percent for Art Program.

The project approved Monday night stems from an August 2009 dam safety order from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

In addition to the toe drain repairs and whitewater amenities, it includes improvements to the border-to-border trail that runs through the area. The city is hoping to get $50,000 from Washtenaw County for that part of the project.

The project was recommended by the Park Advisory Commission in a 7-1 vote last month. PAC Chairwoman Julie Grand spoke in favor of it again Monday night, saying she left last month's PAC meeting "as excited as I've been in a really long time."

She said improving the headrace and eliminating the cumbersome canoe portage has the potential to make Argo an even greater destination point.

"It's going to be much more aesthetically pleasing for people," she said. "And the more time people spend in and around the river, the more we appreciate the river, the more we take care of the river. It also creates synergy potentially with the neighborhood, with the downtown area."


Council Member Margie Teall, D-4th Ward, joined Hohnke in trying to avoid tapping into the city's water fund.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Michael Psarouthakis, husband of Pioneer Rowing Club President Lisa Psarouthakis, spoke on behalf of the rowing community. He said the improvements will turn the Argo pond and headrace into "one of the greatest water sport recreational destinations in Michigan."

"This proposal will allow the canoe liveries to expand business because of portage-free trips down the Huron River and, at the same time, allow slow-water canoeists, kayakers, fishermen and, yes, rowers to do what we love to do on Argo," he said.

The city is contracting with TSP Environmental to do the work. TSP is partnering with Beckett and Raeder and Recreation Engineering and Planning.

Gary Lacy, an engineer with Colorado-based Recreation Engineering and Planning, told PAC last month he hopes to get started on the project this winter while the ground is frozen — as opposed to muddy — and complete the work by early summer.

City officials stressed that moving forward with the project isn't related to any pending decisions about the dam's long-term future. The amenities being put in place, for the most part, will remain even if the dam is removed, they said.

Hieftje said the project also will not impede the VA hospital's potential reintroduction of hydropower generation facilities at Argo Dam.

Teall and Hohnke said they hope now that the immediate safety concerns surrounding Argo Dam are being addressed, the community can move forward with a less-heated discussion about the pros and cons of removing Argo Dam from the Huron River.

Environmental groups have been pushing to restore a free-flowing river, but they have been met with fierce opposition from the local rowing community, which uses Argo Pond.

Hohnke said he came to the conclusion that funding the toe drain repairs and "deflating the hot atmosphere" around the issue was the right step for now.

Teall and Hohnke both have gone on record saying they don't believe dams are a healthy way to manage a river, though they haven't fully committed to a dam-out position.

"I'm hopeful that the whitewater amenity will be able to be used one way or the other," Teall said. "And I am also hopeful that that conversation — the public conversation — about whether we choose to keep the dam or not will move forward at some point and that staff and council can find a way to make that happen. I think we need a serious public engagement process."

Hohnke called it a complex issue.

"Last year, in our role on the Environmental Commission, I certainly came to the conclusion after studying the environmental data very carefully that I thought the environmental case for keeping the dam can't be made reasonably," he said. "But it's not the only case. There's a financial case and there's a recreational case, too."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.


Stan Hyne

Sat, Nov 20, 2010 : 11:20 a.m.

Michael Psarouthakis -- Thanks for the additional info. I used to run the dams, many years ago, when I worked for Detroit Edison. I worked at Superior and controlled the machines there, and remotely controlled the generators at Barton, Argo, Geddes, Papermill ( although that wasn't an Edison unit ), and French Landing. In the summer the river ran only a few hours a day. The flow of the river was an on again, off again, sort of thing. The bass would bite at Superior Station when the # 3 machine was on at 7/10ths opening.

Michael Psarouthakis

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 6:46 a.m.

Stan Hyne - VA has no choice but to come up with 7% renewable energy standard for all federal facilities. A recent report given to AA City Council from the VA includes a technical review of electrifying both Argo and Geddes Dams it was determined, both locally and reviewed and approved in Washington DC, that electrifying Argo and Geddes was the best solution when compared to using solar, bioenergy or wind for VAs obligation to comply with the renewable energy standard. Still a long way to go before this actually happens. You can read more at this link FYI low head electric generation has greatly advanced since DTE stopped producing electricity at Argo. As far as the $300k from the water fund, the argument was made that $300k was budgeted for the past five years to do fix the toe drains, the council actually had three other options from other buckets in the budget and there was a lengthy debate and vote on which bucket to use. None of the four options included raising taxes and all options had the funds immediately available. Obviously the majority of council members felt it best to use the funds that have been budgeted for so long to address the toe drain problem, but they also agreed to not use water funds for Argo starting in FY2012. It was a compromise.

Stan Hyne

Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 5:19 p.m.

The money was taken from the water supply fund because that's easier than trying to get the money by legitimate means like raising taxes for the project. If it was practical to make electricity with hydro power on the Huron River at Argo, Detroit Edison wouldn't have quit generating power at that location. The head is too low for effective generation and the river only can generate a few hours a day without greatly affecting the pond level and river water flow.

Rork Kuick

Wed, Nov 17, 2010 : 10:05 a.m.

Continuing abundant spin by rowers and politicians does not alter that this is a loss for environmentalists. We have been insufficiently vocal and poorly organized, and perhaps too few in numbers. That hardly means we should stop trying to change people's minds. Large shifts in attitudes have occurred in other places, perhaps because the destruction is more obvious I admit (e.g. no salmon in the Salmon river, Idaho). Can't just say "Oh well" when shared resources are involved. PS: how appealing the planned "artistry" will be heavily depends on the eyeballs being used.

Steve Bean

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 2:24 p.m.

@townie, I was distinguishing between Kunselman and Hohnke based on their vote on the resolution and the statement attributed to Kunselman. If the topic had been the vote on the Percent for Arts program, I would have commented on that, which, as I've stated before, I think is a program that unnecessarily raises questions of legality. I met with Hohnke for an hour about a year ago (when I was still a 5th ward resident) and made the case for putting the program up for voter approval in order to strengthen it and rebuild trust in our city government. If you're wondering if I think he can have it both ways while Kunselman can't, no, I don't think he can. Of course, that's just a figure of speech. The reality is that council has approved both projects and the majority of voters are okay with all of it.

Michael Psarouthakis

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 2:15 p.m.

Rork Kuick, glad you found my comments so satirical (entertaining?), though that certainly was not my intent. Obviously there is a group of people like yourself that want the dam out no matter the circumstances, facts presented or lack of community wide Ann Arbor resident support. Since it appears the dam is going to stay for the time being, generating electricity is an environmentally friendly move that I assume some dam out supporters would support even though they would prefer to have the dam removed. My "minor win" comment is clear enough, the council could have added language stating that due to the recreational benefits of Argo pond, funding for dam removal will not be paid for by the city. Council made it very clear last night that this decision does not determine if the dam will stay or go, thus my minor win comment. Compromise is what governments do when they are functioning well, they can't please all the people all the time. The vast majority of people that have an interest in this issue can claim a some sort of win. The entire City Council wanted this to happen and the vote was 10 to 1 in support. Carsten voted against due to his disagreement in using water funds for part of the project, if council had used funding from any other source the vote would have been 11-0. Sorry you don't see it that way or can't take anything positive out of this decision by the council. At least you got a good laugh from my previous comment.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 1:44 p.m.

A good decision, and one that will also allow for flexibility in regard to the long-term future of Argo Dam over the next few decades. It will look good, too. In fact, the architectural drawings so please the eye that they succeed in providing the now-approved project with a strong aesthetic appeal. Pure artistry! And, in fact, rather than take $300,000 away from the water fund, procure it instead directly from One Percent for Art funds which have already been set aside. Following completion, this project will emerge as a practical form of outdoor community art which happens to be heavy on natural components. Why restrict water installations to museums or 'important' public buildings? The future whitewater run will undoubtedly do double-duty as a sloped, horizontal water sculpture that offers creative inspiration to boaters of all stripes, as well as to walkers, joggers, ex-hippies and hoboes who pass by on the trail. For good measure, toss in mural works by local artists to display along its sides. The One Percent solution can also allocate annual maintenance financing to keep this flowing, artistic masterpiece in top shape for years to come.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 1:36 p.m.

Hobos like white water too.

Rork Kuick

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 1:34 p.m.

I call Poe on Michael Psarouthakis comment, meaning it's almost indistinguishable from satire. A "minor win for dam-out supporters" - bwahahaha. That white water feature - you think that will appease anyone? A few maybe. To folks like me it's just more wrong-headed engineering. I'll now also be searching for the environmentalists for dammed river hydropower group, but won't hold my breath.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 1:13 p.m.

I'm glad the City is investing in improving the Argo Dam area. It's a major pedestrian/bicycle connector, and it's right in the heart of a lot of different outdoor/sporting opportunities. A whitewater area will really bring a new dimension to that park zone along the river, as well as keep the ex-hippy/hobo factor down.

Ryan J. Stanton

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 11:54 a.m.

FYI I've added a sentence to the story noting that Council Members Christopher Taylor, D-3rd Ward, and Tony Derezinski, D-2nd Ward, at another point during Monday's discussion proposed funding the project entirely from the parks budget, which would have relieved the water fund of any obligation. (They voted against Hohnke, Teall and Hieftje on the water fund issue earlier in the meeting, but apparently thought the discussion was better had within the context of the resolution to approve the project.)


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 11:35 a.m.

To Andy Jacobs: Your words: "Drinking water fund should be used for drinking water projects. I'm not interested in using excess funds from my drinking water fees to pay to support controversial recreational activities." Explain the relevance and legality of the Public Art Fund and specifically the new City Hall Water Feature being paid for out of the Water Supply Fund? In addition, the city Finance dept. has indicated the correct term is the "Water Supply Fund", it has never been dubbed the "Drinking Water Fund". Politics aside... Kudo's to Julie Grand and the Parks Dept. and all who worked very hard on this project to seek not only a new source of revenue but more importantly showcase our city in way that pleases so many users. The Main St. cooridor and river area is the first impression visitors see and has been ignored for too long. There is a lot of excitement and SUPPORT for this project, CONGRATULATIONS!

Michael Psarouthakis

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 11:07 a.m.

Legal counsel for the city, specifically stated (on the record) at the meeting last night that it was legal to use the $300,000 for the project as budgeted from the water fund. They made it clear that from a legal standpoint that this was and continues to be a decision that the council control, which is why the $300,000 was one of the four funding options offered in the resolution for the head race project. The lawyers clearly reviewed and were prepared to discuss this issue after a very carefully review prior to the meeting. As stated in the article Council did approve all future funding, starting in FY2012, for Argo dam should come from the Parks and Rec fund. They also did decide that, given the legal opinion stated prior to the vote, the $300,000 budgeted five years ago to address the toe drain issue should be used for the project and that it was legal to do so. A document regarding the original funding decision from 1963 was read by one of the council members and it was pretty clear that city council back then intended that funding for land above the water should be supported by the park and rec fund and that dam maintenance should come from the water fund. Obviously the council decided to change this starting in July next year but it was made clear from city attorneys that funding for the dam could legally come from the water fund if council decided to do so. IMO all sides of the dam issue had wins here, Argo dam could still be removed in the future a minor win for dam out supporters, recreation use will be dramatically expand without impact to the current slow water enthusiasts (not just rowers and yes my family and I are rowers) a win for fast and slow water supporters, revenues will likely increase from rentals and events or classes tied to the white water a win for people concerned about the budget and funding of these amenities, the option to convert Argo dam into an hydro electric dam by VA hospital remains on the table and appears to be more likely according to a recent report the city council received from the VA (increasing revenue and decreasing costs if it happens) which should appeal to some environmentalists and obviously appeals to dam in supporters and the budget and funding folks, funding going forward will come from Parks and Rec as many dam out (and some dam in) proponents wanted and the toe drain issue is finally resolved which makes the lawyers and State of Michigan happy. No one got everything they wanted, but this decision seems to appeal to a large majority of Ann Arbor residents that have an interest, stake and/or say in what happens to Argo.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 10:45 a.m.

Steve Bean said, "I second Cedric's thanks to CM Hohnke. Kunselman can't have it both ways. Two wrongs don't make a right, and hypocrisy takes a back seat to legality." I don't get the criticism of one and not the other councilmember. Hohnke voted AGAINST using money from the water fund for Argo, but voted FOR the wasteful fountain which uses Percent for Art money from water, sewer, storm water, parks, etc., etc. Kunselman voted FOR water money used at Argo, but AGAINST the fountain. Both made a big deal out of objecting to what they felt was a misappropriation of funds, but both decided to only apply their objection to one of the two issues, voted on last night, where this mixing of funds came into play. I don't understand how Bean and Richner are distinguishing between Hohnke and Kunselman on this. Both councilmembers seemed to recognize the legal concept that certain money--especially money collected via millages or designated fees--has restrictions as to its use. Yet both voted FOR using funds in this manner on one issue and AGAINST it on another. Others on Council did the same. I watched as Hohnke tried to elicit any kind of sense on the issue from the City Attorney, but to no avail. Perhaps this is a good example of how the City Attorney's failure to provide clear written opinions on important legal matters is harming the Council's ability to effectively lead the City.

Tim Darton

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 10:06 a.m.

Water rates: If you follow the stories here you know A2 has about the lowest water and sewer rates in the state according to a DNRE study. Dam in, Dam out! This decision does not preclude taking the dam out, it provides a smooth water path around the white water that would be created if it were out. Water Fund: Kudus to Hohnke, Teall and the Mayor for voting against using the water fund but the final decision was the right one environmentally. The Huron has 30 dams on it, removing this one would not make a difference with one a mile above and another 3 miles below. The dam should stay, the renewable energy that will be made using a modern turbine will be significant over the long haul providing power for decades and beyond doing its own small part to combat all the coal being burned to create power in Michigan.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 9:57 a.m.

I'm sure it will be fun for city residents and it will be a nice upgrade over what is there now. However, for all the "green" sentiment we supposedly have in Ann Arbor, the hypocrisy surrounding the dam debate and its funding just proves that it's all talk for most. If people want a green solution AND a permanent, final fiscal solution, the answer is obvious.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 9:52 a.m.

Kudos to Councilmember Hohnke! I'm disappointed in Kunselman and I voted for him. I'm disappointed in the others, too. This doesn't make sense. When water rates go up in the future, it will hurt those least able to pay. It's likely they aren't rowers, since most of the rowers are likely not the working poor. If they couldn't take this from Parks and Rec, they shouldn't have done it. Our council members appear to me to be willing to pass resolutions about things that don't directly affect us in Ann Arbor. But they cave in when it comes to things that will help the environment like allowing the river to flow free. They frequently cave in when it comes to things that will hurt the local poor and middle class who are just hanging on, like higher water bills. Do they pass these resolutions about other communities to look liberal and then vote with the money and power where it counts in our local community? I'd like to see some real radical liberals elected, real radical environmentalists not these middle of the road folks that pander to those with the money. Not that I'm against the resolutions they passed, like immigration. I agree with their position. I just suspect that these are a sop to the liberals so they can behave badly when it comes to special interests.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 9:51 a.m.

sorry about the typo in my post above. But I had another great thought. Since the drinking water fund is paying for this, I expect to see all of Argo Pond's rowers filling up their water bottles with pond water and quaffing it down. See? Easy solution to the obvious legal problem that the city council seems to be ignoring.

Rork Kuick

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 9:38 a.m.

"And the more time people spend in and around the river, the more we appreciate the river, the more we take care of the river." Julie Grand failing there. Some sort of newspeak I guess.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 9:38 a.m.

I really doubt this will make the area is recreational destination in the state. You can find stagnant ponds filled with weeds anywhere you go. Why come to Ann Arbor to see one?


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 9:29 a.m.

Un. Real. @ALanG., you hit the nail on the head, as usual. Hypocritical and unwise, all in one fell swoop. And of all you who say things like "funding issues aside" and "I guess we'll have to live with it" are part of the problem. You cannot dismiss what a giant money problem we have in this town. Are priorities are completely out of whack and it's only getting worse.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 9:03 a.m.

The water supply budget is being tapped for this project becuase rates can be raised at a later date when the well runs dry to refurnish the budget. In other words, it is a budget shell game.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 8:51 a.m.

Yee Haw! Gotta love good ol' boy politicking in A Squared (aptly named in this case). I smell bacon! Way to knock the wind out of the system & support pork projects. Drinking water fund should be used for drinking water projects. I'm not interested in using excess funds from my drinking water fees to pay to support controversial recreational activities. Why not use these funds to find ways to make the water costs more affordable for low income residents instead (or heck even "middle income" families)? Use of funds in this manner is probably prohibited in the fine print somehow & somewhere. Put the brakes on this by immediately filing an amendment to the bylaws to prohibit use of funds in other manners besides water & sewer. Is there a lawyer in the house? The DNR and WCAC have done extensive studies that show tremendous benefit in restoring the river to its former glory. This illconceived dam needs to go asap and these strong-arm aggressions and rogue support tactics will not stand, man.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 8:41 a.m.

This is a very good decision for the community. What's bad is how long it's taken to make some sort of decision to do the repairs. The city allocated the $300K at least 5 years ago for toe drain repairs but has been dragging their feet all this time. The state finally had no choice but to issue an order. At least the City decided to do it right and make improvements to the entire earthen part of the dam and headrace. I agree 100% with Mr. Psarouthakis that this will make the Argo Pond area one of the very best recreational destinations in this part of the state.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 8:38 a.m.

This is the wrong decision, but since council has voted this way I guess we will have to live with it. But I've said it before and I'll say it again, I hope they hire lifeguards to pull the river-tourists out of the whitewater. The people who paddle the stretch between Argo and Gallup are terrible paddlers. And I hope the lifeguard funding comes from the parks fund and not the drinking water fund.

Steve Bean

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 8:28 a.m.

I second Cedric's thanks to CM Hohnke. Kunselman can't have it both ways. Two wrongs don't make a right, and hypocrisy takes a back seat to legality.


Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 8:28 a.m.

Funding issues aside, I'm so excited that the project is going to be done so soon!!! The plans look great (although it would have been cool to have a pedestrian bridge across going to a small island or something for wedding pictures etc.- still not too late!) and I'm happy that they are able to take advantage of the winter months. Someone's working, making a salary, supporting a family, and helping the economy grow. Someone make sure to take some before and after pictures! It would be sweet to do a time-lapse project on this.

Cedric Richner

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 : 7:52 a.m.

I want to applaud Councilmember Hohnke, the only member of our Council to go on record with his vote regarding the misuse of the City's drinking water fund. That's leadership. The manner in which our tax dollars are being spent for the Argo project is indefensible.