UM-Flint researchers document the ecology of the Flint River when the centuries-old dam was removed


FLINT, MI — Researchers at the University of Michigan-Flint are studying the ecology of the Flint River as a century-old dam is removed, opening a 25-mile stretch of fish passages.

In April, US Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint Township) announced funding to remove the remainder of the logging industry’s now dangerous levee. Heather Dawson, professor of wildlife biology, and her team of student researchers are measuring how the ecosystem within the river is changing as a result of this process.

Officials announced last month that dismantling the dam will increase the river’s lake sturgeon population. That’s one of many things Dawson’s team is researching.

Dawson came up with the idea of ​​conducting this study at the Flint River because she was looking for ways to serve the students’ interests. But very quickly that turned into something else entirely.

Well, the goal of this research is to help control the narrative surrounding the river, whose name has often been muddied by those who didn’t fully understand the water crisis.

“They see the Flint River as a kind of river with a bad reputation that’s often slandered, and a lot of that is undeserved,” Dawson said. “There are a lot of resources out there and people don’t know it.”

River restoration has become increasingly popular in recent years for a variety of purposes, Dawson said. In this case, there is no reason not to remove the dam, since it is outdated and dangerous.

“They tried to restore the sea sturgeon in this river, which has been extinct for quite some time. … If we could put a fish like that back in that river, that would be really cool,” Dawson said.

Research on the river began in 2019, shortly after the abovewater portion of the dam was removed as part of the Flint Riverfront Restoration Project.

It will likely continue for up to three years after the remaining dam is fully deconstructed, which is expected to be removed sometime in 2023.

“Once you have baseline data, you can assess whether the recovery is a success or not,” Dawson said.

To conduct the research, Dawson and her team of students (three graduate students and a dozen undergraduates) use cast nets and gillnets to collect, weigh, measure, and tag fish.

They also collect benthic macroinvertebrates, small aquatic animals that usually begin their life cycle in water. They can be a good indicator of water quality, Dawson said.

Rapids will be installed on the site of the former dam to reduce the difference in elevation from upstream to downstream. This is common practice in dam removals.

To cope with the change in water level, six rapids will be set up at different locations.

“Imagine you are a fish but you can’t swim well. We still want these poor swimmers to be able to make amends. So they’re going to have little calming pools and they’re going to have little rapids going up,” Dawson said.

The rapids will also create new habitats for certain species that prefer faster moving water.

Having ecological data on the Flint River is only a good thing, Dawson explained. As an example, she cited the recent Lockhart Chemical Co. spill.

“Now we can look at some before and after data and see what the impact might have been,” Dawson said. “…Someone is watching if it happens. You don’t want the flow to just be ignored.”

In comparing the Flint River to other urban rivers, Dawson was actually surprised at how it was compared.

“We thought it would end up in the middle of the pack,” Dawson said. “…It’s a bit like crime in Flint — lots of other cities have the same problems, but for some reason Flint has a worse reputation.”

Alongside the research, the team is working on a walking tour around the river that will include QR codes for residents to scan, sharing information about their study and the wildlife they might find in the area.

Dawson hopes to have the entire system up and running by the end of the summer.

The long-term goal of Dawson’s research is to have the Flint River accepted by the National Science Foundation as a long-term ecological research area.

It takes about six years for the data to be accepted, Dawson said.

“We’re watching this area. We know what happens to it and we care about what happens to it,” she said.

Read more below The Flint Journal:

Wildlife, kayaking returning to 25 mile stretch of Flint River after dam removal

Funding secured to remove dangerous Hamilton Dam on the Flint River

Three Flint boxers from the same gym compete in the national Golden Gloves tournament

Crews begin demolition of Hamilton Dam in downtown Flint


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