Ann Arbor City Council agrees to Argo Dam headrace redesign, putting safety concerns to rest
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
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."
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
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 AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.