Restoring the river

Published 9:20 am Monday, January 13, 2014

The Pokagon Band is seeking input from riverside residents. (Leader photo)

The Pokagon Band is seeking input from riverside residents. (Leader photo)

After years of planning and grant writing, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi’s project to restore a portion of the Dowagiac River could break ground as soon as summer.

Before construction, though, members of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources are gathering one additional resource ahead of breaking ground: feedback from residents living along the three mile stretch of river.

The tribe will be holding a special meeting about the project on Feb. 18 where officials will layout their plan to transform the Dowagiac River to its former glory to residents will riverfront property, hoping to gather input from them in the process.

“We want to make sure we have support for this project, and to assure residents their property won’t be affected by the work,” said Robert Frank, a biologist with the Pokagon DNR who is heading up the project.

For officials with the Pokagon DNR, making sure that riverfront residents are on-board is crucial, as similar restoration projects initiated by other agencies have resulted in flooding and other adverse effects for homeowners.

However, the tribe and its partner Inter-Fluve, the firm contracted to do engineering work, have performed extensive preparation work to assure these issues won’t pop-up as a result of this project, Frank said.

“Our model shows that restoration work won’t affect our property or those held by other land owners,” Frank said.

The first phase of the project, which could begin as early as later summer, will not affect any property owners, Frank said. Despite that, the tribe wants to garner broader support for the restoration long before construction moves into its later phases.

“We want to show we are moving forward in a courteous manner,” said Mark Parrish, the director of the Pokagon DNR.

The project to restore the natural meanders, or curves, of the portion of the Dowagaic River on tribal land has been a priority for the Parrish and the Pokagon Band for more than a decade, since the tribe participated in the planning for Dowagiac River Watershed in 2002, Parrish said. However, the DNR started to make serious movements for the project in 2011, after bringing Frank and water quality specialist Grant Poole into the fold.

“It’s been on the list of things we wanted to do, and now we have the capacity to carry it out,” Parrish said.

The department was able to secure initial funding for the restoration the same year, via grants from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program dedicated to improving bodies of water near the Great Lakes region. So far, the DNR has spent $214,000 during the planning phase of the project, and has collected $200,000 for construction during phase one.

The importance of this project to the tribe has much to do with the impact the river has on their history. Pokagon Indians who first settled in the area centuries ago benefited from the resources the river provided.

“One of the interpretations of the word ‘Dowagiac’ is a ‘place to forage,’” Parrish said. “That’s one of the reasons our ancestors stayed here, because of these natural resources like the river.”

The Dowagiac River’s natural curvature was altered more than a century ago, with the county straightening the body’s course and increasing its depth in order to drain swampland near Decatur, allowing the town to use those lands for agriculture. However, this work increased the speed of which the river flows, which impacted the fish and plant life that thrive in stiller waters.

By restoring the meanders, the DNR will not only slow the speed of which the river flows, but will also add two miles to its course, Poole said.

“The way I see it, we’re turning back time with this project,” Parrish said. “We’re not making something, we’re taking the remnants of what the river used to be and reconnecting them. We will be utilizing the resources that are already there, as nature intended.”

While restoration of this sort typically costs several million dollars, the Pokagon Band hopes to reduce expenditures by using trees and rocks from the surrounding region during construction, Frank said.

In addition to increasing the population of native fish and other wildlife, the expanded routes provided by the re-meandering would also provide reduce the chances of the river overflowing due to heavy rainfall, Frank said.

During phase one, crews will restore the river’s outlets to neighboring Rodger’s Lake, which will allow fish to travel between the two bodies of water. Frank estimates that the work could be completed as quickly as one week, he said.

While the tribe currently only plans on restoring portions of the river in its lands, they will consider expanding the scope of the project if landowners express interest.

The Feb. 18 meeting will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Pokagon Township Hall.