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Posted on Sun, Sep 13, 2009 : 9 a.m.

Dam Out: Benefits of removing Argo Dam far outweigh the cost of keeping it

By Owen Jansson

As a long-time Ann Arbor resident I read with great interest, and some concern, the’s Sunday print edition editorial (Sept. 6) on the Argo Dam issue.

First, I would recommend to all that if they have not already done so, they should read the article entitled “Restoring the Huron” which appears in the Fall 2009 newsletter of the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC). In this context I would also like to point out that the HRWC, throughout its 45-year history, has taken a very well-researched and balanced approach to resource management issues involving the Huron River and the local communit

My only point of agreement with your editorial is that the Argo dam decision -whatever it may be - will not please everyone. This issue (i.e. “dam in” vs “dam out”) is truly one of those classic resource management questions involving financial, ecological, and recreational factors, and is probably the most controversial and emotionally-charged of such resource management questions that Ann Arbor has faced in a long time.

But this does not mean, however, as your editorial states, that there is no best decision to be made here, and your conclusion recommending “dam in” opts for avoidance of short term discontent and fails to consider the larger picture of what is best - financially, ecologically, and recreationally - for the largest number of constituents for the longest period of time. And “constituents” should be broadly conceived here to include all of Ann Arbor’s residents, the Huron River itself, and all of the components of its ecosystem.

I think, in fact, that a full and complete analysis of this issue can only lead to the conclusion that over the long haul the benefits of dam removal - financially, recreationally, and ecologically - far outweigh the benefits of repair and retention of the Argo dam.

The ecological benefits, though perhaps less tangible and harder to quantify as they relate to the average citizen, have been well documented by HRWC and others.

Recreationally, your editorial takes a very unfair and misleading either/or stance, equating “dam in” with “…deeply valuing the recreational resource that Argo pond offers the community…”, and equating “dam out” with “…valuing the admirable goal of restoring the river….” Although you note that Argo pond is an asset in its current state you fail to note that its benefits - which are at considerable annual and on-going financial expense to the city and ecological expense to the river - accrue largely to a very small subset of users, i.e. the rowing community.

Your comment that “It’s (Argo pond) been in place for decades…” does not represent a reason for its retention in the future, and your statement that Argo “…is used by outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts….” is self-serving, but would be much more accurate if the dam were removed, providing a greater range of recreational opportunities to a larger number of potential users of the resulting riverine environment.

Financially, it is clear that Ann Arbor city government is facing, and will continue to face in the future, the question of how best to allocate scarce financial resources, and in this context the issue of one-time costs of “dam out” versus the on-going annual costs of “dam in” - and how to avoid the latter when the long view argues for the former - becomes an important fiscal consideration. This is especially true when those on-going city financial costs support a limited recreational benefit while at the same time preventing an optimal repairing and improving of the riverine environment.

As your editorial concludes, the Argo dam decision will be a tough one, but I believe - unlike your editorial - that there really is a right decision and a wrong decision to be made here, and I hope that our City Council, in its collective wisdom, has the political will and courage to not be swayed by short term political expediency and the demands of a vocal interest group, but instead to take the long view and do what is best financially, recreationally, and ecologically for the entire city (its citizens and its river) over the long haul of time.

Owen Jansson recently retired as an assistant director of a research center at the University of Michigan. He served as executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council from 1973-77.


Rork Kuick

Mon, Sep 21, 2009 : 12:32 p.m.

Retorts to Tru2Blu's last: I am not a member of HRWC (I would be proud to be one though - real data is good), and certainly not their former chairman or spokesperson. Previous complaints by Charlie Sullivan was that nobody was complaining about the other dams, so I fixed that. Now you are complaining in the reverse. I am wrong both ways I guess. You don't want all the AA dams ultimately removed I take it - no, you didn't really say that did you? The fact about Mill creek, is that when asked how long the banks of a future Argo would be "mud flats" in a different forum, I said the pond-bottom at Mill creek were colonized almost immediately with plants, in one sentence. That's not a ploy. Mr Tru2Blu usually wants that situation painted as worse than Argo, or better, depending on the subject, but in any case finds a failure of "equivalency" of any other dam or dam removal. I don't think anyone is sly about maintenance costs. It's the one thing there's been no real debate about. 302,500 by 2012. 382,500 by 2014. 515,000 by 2019, and it keeps going. Right? (Not counting toe drains or other fix.) Yes we can just pay those, but I thought the whole point of the option of getting rid of the dam is an option to save that money to invest in other things. I'm not clear what Tru2Blu is saying with some of the rest of that ("inflate their case"). Edwards and others might give us their costing. It will likely show removal to cost more than repair/maintenance in the short run, but not in the long run. (It's only fair to say when you plan to remove the dam in such a calculation, since all those costs are merely being delayed I think, not vaporized.) It would also show us, how much grant money, conservancy money, or delay of park development might be needed to make costs of a dam-out-now plan reasonably priced for the acquisition of that land, the eco-benefits, and possible increases in river trips or fishing (none of which I ask you to cost out or quantify).

Joseph Edwards

Fri, Sep 18, 2009 : 7:45 a.m.

Ross - An honest, objective alternatives analysis from the HRIMP would have determined if your point about maintanence costs versus dam removal cost is true. Because the analysis was so obviously manipulated by dam out advocates, it's your word against mine. Using your logic regarding maintanence costs, the dam out advocates should be demanding that mowing, and other maintanence activities, stop at Fuller Park and Gallup Park. Silly. Dam out advocates also completely dismiss all revenue generation potential from hydroelectric power at Argo and Geddes Dams. The 44 year payback identified in the city sponsored feasibility study is now down to 32 years since the cost of electricity sold by the city to DTE went up a half a cent earlier this year. The VA believes the payback will be less than 10 years and has asked the US Army Corps of Engineers to do their own feasibility study. I'm betting the Corps of Engineers can complete an honest, objective alternatives analysis better than any group or company sponsored by the Ann Arbor Environmental Commission and the HRWC!


Thu, Sep 17, 2009 : 10:30 p.m.

Joseph, even if you ignore all the hyperbole about new park land having value (of course it would never be sold) and random improvements that could be done, etc, its still cheaper to remove the dam over the long run! The cost of normal maintenance and insurance, along with doing something serious about the mill race, add up to more than the cost of dam removal. Even if you include a pedestrian bridge. It's that simple. The newly exposed land might fare better than we all think. Certainly a team of volunteers could be formed periodically to manage the species. And dredging is hypothetical now, sure, but the sediment continues to accumulate. At what point does it become an issue? Yes trublu, the costs of managing the dam have been dealt with for many years. But we've certainly paid for it, in our annoyingly expensive taxes. I'm for dam removal for ecological reasons first, but subsidizing rowing sports with my taxes doesn't seem fair either.

Joseph Edwards

Thu, Sep 17, 2009 : 6:08 a.m.

R&R - The HRIMP plan is biased and I'm not a rower. THIS IS NOT A ROWING ISSUE! I am a city property owner and taxpayer and the dam out arguments make me very frustrated. Regarding the alternatives analysis - Remove the bridge cost if you think it is not necessary. But also remove the cost of a harvester (hasn't been needed in 40 years), the cost of dredging (hasn't been needed in 40 years), the annual cost of vegetation management (done for free by the evil rowing community) and the $2.8 million value of newly acquired land (it will be city-owned land, covered by garlic mustard, and will never be sold). Finally, cost out closing the headrace as an 8th alternative.


Wed, Sep 16, 2009 : 6:04 p.m.

Right on Rork. I completely agree with your recent comments regarding this issue. I'm glad to see continued reporting on this, as the debate is becoming less skewed by just the rowing community. As more people are exposed to this issue, we hear a lot more from folks who agree that dam removal is better for river health, recreational uses, and our city budget. Arguments against those points made by rowers seem pretty thin to me. The only group that stands to lose anything whatsoever from dam removal are the rowers. So their persistently loud voices on the issue make sense. But my comments to you rowers is this: Us dam-out folks really DO value your passion for rowing, and don't want to see you unfairly displaced. Reference the HRWC report for reinforcement of this ideal. With a little common effort from the local community we can get you moved just fine. Change can be good, so don't be afraid! Sports and their proponents that rely on vast areas of artificial manipulation of the natural environment (whether that was the originally intended purpose or not) should be examined in a greater context. We wouldn't cut the top off a mountain to build a nice flat soccer field. Some local golf courses are being returned to nature as well. Lets strive to only use the local environment for our recreation in it's natural form (and return it that way wherever possible).

Rork Kuick

Wed, Sep 16, 2009 : 12:08 p.m.

First, I find the HRIMP report biased in the opposite manner than that claimed by the rowers. Cost of constructing a perhaps-not-essential pedestrian bridge was accounted to removing the dam for example. At the public meetings the rowers were out in force, organized, vocal, sly, and without shame when it came to using junk arguments, a tradition that continues. The argument that the impoundments mostly benefits rowers is dead-on: The joggers, nature lovers, walkers, kayakers, and so on, will be better served by a free-flowing river and more parkland. I might actually bother to canoe there again. Currently I don't cause it is not nearly the likes of the free-flowing river. Sullivan's "dirty word" about dam removal folks not talking about removing other dams is of course absurd - the paper mill damn in Ypsi must go as well, but it feels best to fight this one dam at a time. Perhaps the actual dirty secret is the exact opposite: many outdoor enthusiasts, like me, want Barton and Superior dams removed as well, though we don't expect speedy action, and it may not help our immediate goal of removing Argo to talk about it too much.


Wed, Sep 16, 2009 : 10:20 a.m.

You could row at Gallup, perhaps get Conncordia to partnership, they own property right to the river, or you could go down by Leforge. Ford lake would work too, good idea. And if I am not mistaken Michigan's rowing team did have a boathouse at some point out on Ford or Belleville lake.

Joseph Edwards

Wed, Sep 16, 2009 : 8:10 a.m.

1bit - Please share the reports you are reading. If there are unbias analyses of the cost of the many alternatives, I'd like to see them. As I stated, the HRIMP Committee report was blatantly manipulated by advocates of dam removal. The most cost effective alternative, closing the headrace, was not even considered.


Tue, Sep 15, 2009 : 7:11 p.m.

Removing the dam costs less in the long run - I've read the report and the numbers seem pretty clear. It is even more cost effective if the $440,000 allocated to moving the rowing community elsewhere is removed. I'm not against saving the dam, per se. I'm proud that we have a vibrant rowing community here. I'm happy that photographers have scenic vistas. However, those who want the more expensive solution need to figure out how to pay for it if they want it saved. The burden should not rest entirely on the A2 taxpayer.

Charley Sullivan

Tue, Sep 15, 2009 : 6:04 p.m.

Treetown: We rowers can go to Belleville? Really? And where would you have us launch from, build a boathouse, etc.? And the Huron River in Ypsilanti, which I live less than 1/4 mile from, can't support rowing, unless you're talking about Ford Lake, which could support rowing. So, again, please know what you're talking about before you opine about what the rowing community can and can't do. But if there's a dirty word about the issue of removing Argo dam, it's why so many people are focused on taking Argo out, and aren't working on the Peninsular dam in Ypsilanti, which would both "free up" more of the river and create better white water paddling opportunities without disrupting the flat water usage of the Huron. Or is that part of the Huron fine just as it is??


Tue, Sep 15, 2009 : 3:16 p.m.

The rowers can go to Belleville Lake, where they used to row, or dare I say it, the dirty word in Ann Arbor, the Huron River near Ypsilanti.


Mon, Sep 14, 2009 : 11:47 a.m.

Like many of the other "pro dam removal" proponents, Mr. Jansson vastly understates or ignores completely the costs & expenditures that would result from taking the dam out. Although maintenance costs per year would obviously be gone with no dam, he doesn't say anything about the millions of dollars that will be spent in building a new pedestrian bridge, rebuilding river access points like docks, moving the rowing community, cleaning up and restoring the reclaimed land, and additional planning and consulting work involved in creating a free-flowing river. The City has NO clue where they will get most of this money. It's completely irresponsible to be considering large expenditures in a time when the city and county budgets are so greatly diminished. And the gain from creating a free flowing few miles of river is not very much vs. losing such prime recreational space in the middle of the city. Mr. Jansson's statement that the benefits of keeping the dam accrue mostly to rowers is laughably absurd. Anyone who actually goes to the Argo Pond area and looks around will see hundreds of joggers, nature watchers, hikers, canoers, fishermen, and kayakers enjoying the slow-moving water and vistas EVERY day. Let's make logical and fiscally-responsible decisions that aren't based on environmental hype and rhetoric.

Matt Van Auker

Mon, Sep 14, 2009 : 10:51 a.m.

I couldn't agree more. I hope it comes down to some kind of ballot proposal. It really should.

Joseph Edwards

Sun, Sep 13, 2009 : 9:45 p.m.

The Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) Committee had the opportunity to conduct a "full and complete analysis of this issue" and that opportunity was hijacked by your follow "dam out" activists who dishonestly and blatantly manipulated the alternatives analysis. I will never trust what comes out of the Ann Arbor Environmental Commission and the HRWC again! HRWC "has taken very well-researched and balanced approach" in the tradition of Fox News!