New federal funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act will bridge a northern Michigan waterway that has been disconnected from the Maple River since the 1800s.
MICHIGAN—A $2 million infusion of federal cash is set to help reopen a 5-mile stretch of an iconic northern Michigan river that has been disconnected since the 1800s—and conservation officials say it’ll reduce flooding and be a boon for the local fish population.
The US Department of Interior last week announced $35 million in funding to support 39 projects in 22 states designed to address outdated dams, culverts, levees and other barriers that, over the years, have led to fragmented rivers and streams. And Michigan scored big.
A total of $1.93 million will fund the replacement of two culverts along the Maple River in Muskegon and Newaygo counties, which will bridge the long lost connection in the stream. It was the fourth-largest project announced in the newly announced federal grant funding.
Federal officials said the riverway restoration project will help reduce flooding and erosion, provide a new habitat for fish and wildlife, and also help protect local indigenous crops. It’s also expected to ensure native fish—like brook trout and lake sturgeon—have access to a safe, cool-water habitat as climate change continues to increase water temperatures.
“This is big. This is really big,” said Scott Faulkner, executive director of the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly, which is coordinating the restoration project. “It’s also incredibly rare to open up a river channel that has been closed for 125 years. It’s a very big deal for us.”
Located in the Muskegon River watershed, the Maple River was once a bountiful branch of the Muskegon River that completed the water border around what was formerly a distinct island called Maple Island, Faulkner explained in an interview with The ‘Gander.
A portion of the river was drained in the late 1800s to accommodate the lumber industry. And since it closed, the aging culverts have reportedly contributed to increased flooding in the area on dozens of occasions—particularly in 1986, 2011, and 2014. As a result, growing seasons were delayed, and local crops were damaged in the process, Faulkner explained.
At the moment, much of the Maple River is “basically a mosquito infested, dried-up river bed,” farmers explained in a documentary film published by the Watershed Assembly. Other portions have stagnant water, which is “pretty nasty” in the summer months, Faulkner said.
“Being able to bring it back to life will have extraordinary benefits,” Faulkner said. “It helps wildlife. It has economic benefits. There’s also just a certain magic to being able to restore a river like this. Just imagine kayakers being able to travel there for the first time in a century.”
Faulkner said the Watershed Assembly will also plant 1,000 sugar maple trees on Maple Island—which hasn’t been an island since that stretch of the Maple River was drained.
The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians is also poised to see a substantial benefit from the project, namely because it will help protect and expand Manoomin (wild rice) crops in the area. Tribal officials said closing the channel in the 1800s had a detrimental effect on the crops.
“This is a critical watershed, and it’s critical for our tribal citizens because many of them live in that area,” said Frank Beaver, director of natural resources for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. “This funding really opens the door to a lot of connectivity projects too, so I’d say it’s critical for the watershed, and I suspect it will lead to a lot of high-value projects.”
He added: “Wild rice is a very culturally important food source for our members. Historically, there would’ve been a healthy, and thriving wild rice—or Manoomin—population there, but deforestation and blocking off the channel for the lumber industry had a real impact.”
Under the Biden administration, the US Department of Interior has a five-year plan to spend at least $200 million to restore rivers and streams, allowing fish migration and mitigating flooding. The Maple River project is also part of a broader, $3 billion federal investment in fish passage projects—which also includes funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.
Secretary Deb Haaland has labeled it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to invest in the nation’s rivers, streams, and communities and help restore habitats for fish nationwide.
“As the effects of climate change continue to intensify, Tribal Nations in particular are facing unique climate-related challenges that threaten resources vital to Indigenous communities,” she said in a statement. “These fish passage investments will support community-led transitions and facilitate long-term conservation and economic growth in these areas.”
All told, nine of the newly announced projects will be led by Tribal partners—and most will help with conservation efforts for threatened or endangered species, officials said. Various environmental assessments are already underway. Beaver also said that tribal officials are set to meet next week to discuss the logistics (and timeline) of the Maple River project.
Also in Michigan: Another $300,000 project announced last week will replace a failing culvert on Claybank Creek in Manistee County. Officials said the existing culvert is too small, and prevents fish (like brook trout) from traveling freely through the passage.
Replacing the culvert is set to reopen more than 3 miles of cold water, and help create a valuable new spawning habitat for resident and migratory fish. It will also help to mitigate the risk of flooding for homes and businesses near the Manistee River State Game Area.
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