To Dam or Not to Dam

  • Residents on Boardman Pond are upset about the water level dropping after the pond was drawn down because of safety concerns at a nearby dam. Homeowners here are worried that if the dams are taken out, they'll lose their waterfront property permanently. (Photo courtesy of Jim and Joane McIntyre)

America has been a country that builds
dams. There are more than 75,000 major
dams in the US. But now, a lot of those dams
are getting old and they’re breaking down.
That means people who live near those dams have
some choices to make. Rebecca Williams has
the story of neighbors who are debating what
to do with their river:

Transcript

America has been a country that builds
dams. There are more than 75,000 major
dams in the US. But now, a lot of those dams
are getting old and they’re breaking down.
That means people who live near those dams have
some choices to make. Rebecca Williams has
the story of neighbors who are debating what
to do with their river:

We’ve built dams for good reasons – they can produce electricity and help
control floods. But a lot of the dams in the US are 50 or even a hundred years
old. In dam years, that’s really old.

“Right now we’re sittin’ on an earthen dam, which is Union Street dam.”

Sandra Sroonian lives in Traverse City, Michigan. It’s a touristy town on a
bright blue bay of Lake Michigan. The Boardman River flows into the Great
Lake and it cuts right through town. There are four old dams on the
Boardman.

The utility company that licensed those dams decided they weren’t profitable
anymore. So they gave up the licenses, and now the city and county are trying
to decide what the heck they’re gonna do with the dams.

Sroonian is an engineer who’s turned into a mediator of sorts. She’s helping
people here sort through all the options. Some of the dams could be made to
generate power again, or some of the dams could be taken out to restore the
river to a more natural state. The water would be faster and colder.

“So depending if you’re a fisherman or fisherperson you may feel it’s a benefit
to remove the dams to improve the fishing along the river.”

She says other people want a whitewater park to kayak on.

But the Boardman is a blue ribbon trout stream, it’s one of the best. Biologists
say it’d be even better without the dams.

And then, there are the people who say they have the most to lose if the dams
are taken out.

(sound at Boardman Pond)

Jim and Joane McIntyre live on Boardman Pond.

“When we bought this house 14 years ago it never entered our minds that we
wouldn’t always be on this wonderful little piece of paradise.”

McIntyre says if the dams are taken out, their pond will be drained. They’ve
actually gotten a taste of that already. Because of safety concerns at one of the
dams the water level in the pond was lowered. The McIntyre’s dock is 25 feet
above the water. They can’t even get their boat out on the water.

“We would be having this interview floating around on our electric deck boat
with an adult beverage (laughs). But we’re not able to do that. So from that
standpoint we’ve lost some of the attractiveness of living on water – it’s
beautiful but we want to use it.”

The McIntyres say they want what’s best for the river. But they also want to
keep their waterfront property. And they say it’d make more sense to produce
electricity from the river.

And that’s what this debate is boiling down to: energy versus property rights
versus the environment versus the economy.

Mike Estes is the Mayor of Traverse City. He says boosting the local economy
matters most.

“We’re trying to increase tourism here. Traverse City is already a destination
spot for people to visit – they visit because of our golden sand beaches and the
bay. Adding the river to it is simply going to add to that mix.”

This dam debate has lasted more than three years – there’ve been lots of studies
and dozens of public meetings. Some people here joke they won’t be alive by
the time the whole thing gets resolved.

But a decision on this Michigan river is expected by the end of the year. Most
people think it’ll be a compromise – maybe keep some of the old dams, take
some out.

A lot of towns close to rivers all across the nation will be having these same
debates.

And you can bet that not everyone’s going to be happy.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Governor Blocks Great Lakes Water Diversion

The governor of Michigan is blocking a request by a town in
Wisconsin to pump water from Lake Michigan. The GLRC’s Sarah
Hulett reports:

Transcript

The governor of Michigan is blocking a request by a town in
Wisconsin to pump water from Lake Michigan. The GLRC’s Sarah
Hulett reports:


Under federal law right now, any one of the eight Great Lakes
governors can veto a proposed water withdrawal, but a
proposed agreement between the eight states would allow
communities that straddle the boundary that defines the Great
Lakes basin to draw water from the lakes.


The town of New Berlin, Wisconsin sits on the boundary. It’s
asking for permission to draw water from Lake Michigan for the
half of the city that sits outside the basin, but Governor Granholm
of Michigan says she won’t consider the request.


Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Spokesman Bob
McCann says he realizes one town won’t drain the lake:


“But a thousand such proposals coming in may do that. So the question is,
where do you draw the line?”


Michigan’s governor says until that new multi-state agreement is
ratified, it’s important not to set a bad precedent.


For the GLRC, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links

Suburb Sees the Light in Rail

  • The town of Elburn, IL is working to preserve their small town feel in the face of sprawling development headed their way. (Photo by Shawn Allee)

Rural towns on the edge of big cities often see encroaching suburban development as a threat to their way of life. One small town is feeling those pressures too. And it’s taking a page from its past to fight them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee has this report:

Transcript

Rural towns on the edge of big cities often see encroaching
suburban development as a threat to their way of life. One small town
is feeling those pressures too. And it’s taking a page from its past
to fight them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee
has this report:


Eric Gustaffson is a young guy who works at his family’s drug store. He says he plans to stick around because he likes his small town – Elburn, Illinois – just as it is. It’s still got a working grain elevator and animal feed stores. It also has a real town center, a strip of shops that people can walk to.


But like a lot of his neighbors, Eric’s bothered by some of the sprawling subdivisions that are popping up nearby. He doesn’t want to see that that kind of development come to Elburn. He says it would become a place where neighbors live too far apart and everyone has to drive to get anywhere. He does have hope, though.


“I really think that the plan that Elburn has set in place will work a lot better and will control how things grow a little bit more instead of just things from popping up in random places.”


So, what’s the plan? Well, it turns out Elburn’s looking to its past for help. Residents used to catch passenger trains here for day trips to Chicago. The passenger service died out decades ago, but now Elburn’s bringing in a new train station. It will be part of the region’s Metra commuter rail system.


By next year, commuters will be able to avoid the congested roads that lead to Chicago, but the town also wants the station to be the center of a new neighborhood, a cluster of new shops, smaller homes, and even apartments.


The idea’s to get people to walk to stores and the train instead of driving to them, all of which is very different from what’s happening in nearby subdivisions. Those are pretty much isolated tracts of big houses and little else.


There is some danger in Elburn’s plan, though. The proposed development could double the population, and the train station will attract extra car traffic to its parking lot. During our drive to the construction site, I ask the mayor, Jim Willey, whether this plan might kill the town while trying to save it.


“I get the impression sometimes people wish that we had some secret sauce we could spray on the town and keep it just the way it is. It’s sad, but you can’t do that and change happens, and we have to deal with it.”


(Sound of heavy machinery)


At the site, construction machines pack down a couple of acres of dirt. It took a decade, a lot of political will, and a hundred and forty million dollars to start the project. But Jim says that was the easy part.


It will be harder to resist the temptation to stray from the plan, and build only big, single family homes here. He says a compact mix of stores and housing will be good for the region, not just Elburn. If there’s enough housing here, maybe there’ll be less pressure to build houses on the nearby farms.


“You can’t go anywhere in the world and find finer farmland than where we’re at right now. So the least that we can do is, when we’re going to convert this to housing, is let’s think about what we’re doing, let’s try to make some intelligent decisions.”


There are towns that look like Elburn’s vision of the future. Last century, commuter towns with compact development sprung up along the country’s commuter rail lines. But they all got their start in the days before interstate highways and long car commutes. So, is it possible to mimic those towns now, in the post-automobile age?


Well, I put that question to Dave Schulz. He’s with the Infrastructure Technology Institute, a federally-funded transportation research group. He says it’s hard to keep projects like Elburn’s on track; homes are clustered close to shops, what planners call high-density. He cites Glenview, another Illinois town with a commuter rail station.


“Basically, a number of members of the Glenview board who were voted out of office for approving a townhome development that was judged, apparently, by voters to be too high density near the train station. I think we have a situation where people in the suburbs fear density.”


Schulz says it’s hard to change that attitude. But to fend off the sprawl of suburban development, towns like Elburn need to stay the course. Otherwise…


“If all you’re gonna do is build a bunch of stations in the middle of the cornfields with giant parking lots to allow people to drive to the station from wherever they choose to live, I think a fairly strong argument can be made that you’re not fighting sprawl, but you’re in fact facilitating sprawl.”


Dave Schulz says places like Elburn could be onto something. Maybe its plan for compact development will attract people looking for something different from typical suburban homes. If Elburn can keep its small-town feel, maybe newcomers won’t mind giving up their spacious yards and extra cars.


For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Study: Land Use Patterns Altering Earth

  • Everybody has basic needs: food, water, and shelter. A study says that these needs are rapidly changing the earth we live on. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Some scientists contend that land use by humans has become a top threat to the planet’s ecosystems. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

Some scientists contend that land use by humans has become a top threat to the planet’s ecosystem. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports.


People in cities and towns often spend hours debating local land use issues, but a group of scientists says there should also be a focus on the larger topic of widespread conversion of natural landscapes to uses like urban development and agriculture.


Jonathan Foley is a climatologist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and lead author of a new study published in the journal Science. He says the Midwest sees its share of large land use changes.


“We grow a lot of corn and soybeans and other crops. But we do so, unfortunately, with quite a bit of damage to some of our environment: water quality, leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus into our lakes and groundwater and streams.”


Foley says the Midwest could look at changing farm subsidy programs to help farmers use better environmental practices. Globally, he says six billion people are competing for food, water, and shelter, and their land use decisions are transforming the planet.


For the GLRC, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

Related Links

Rats Scurrying to the Suburbs

  • Life in the suburbs is idyllic to some people... (Photo by Bon Searle)

Unusually heavy rains this summer are partly to blame
for rats pouring out of the sewers in droves all over the country, and the nasty vermin are relocating to some of the most pristine
neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce
Kryszak explains what caused the rat invasion and
what’s being done to evict them:

Transcript

Unusually heavy rains this summer are partly to blame for rats pouring out of the sewers
in droves all over the country. And the nasty vermin are relocating to some of the most
pristine neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce Kryszak explains what
caused the rat invasion and what’s being done to evict them:


Piercing blue autumn skies and billowing white clouds drift across the chimneys of this modest,
but perfectly manicured suburb. There aren’t even many leaves crunching under foot. Town workers
have already come and vacuumed them all away. But there’s a nasty little secret scurrying under
the porches and behind the garden sheds in this Western New York town. County Sanitation Chief
Peter Tripi takes us for a peek.


“Can you see the teeth marks here? That’s actually rat gnaw marks. And there’s the garbage bag.
And that’s what we found when we went to this property.”


Now, you might be thinking that we trudged through derelict grass and scattered debris to find
these rat clues. Nope. This is a gorgeous, manicured yard – with not a blade of grass out of
place. But Tripi says rats aren’t choosy.


“You would never think by looking side to side that there would be a rat problem in this yard.
Doesn’t matter what neighborhood you live in, or how much money you’ve got. There’s no difference.
They just like your food.”


And you’d be surprised where rats can find food. A garbage can left even briefly uncovered, a
neglected bird feeder, uhhh… dog feces… and even a compost pile.


“Absolutely. This is a rat condo. It’s a grass-clipping compost pile that basically housed rats
to go a hundred yard radius all the way around to the different houses.”


Tripi says rats had to get creative with their housing. A summer of extremely heavy rains drove
the out of the sewers and into some previously rat-free neighborhoods. And with the West Nile
virus killing off millions of birds, the rats have less competition for the food they’re finding
above ground. The consequence is a virtual rat infestation all the way from New York and Illinois
to Virginia, Michigan and L.A. In Kenmore, there have been four thousand rat complaints – nearly
double last year.


(Sound of garbage truck)


Of course, none of this is news to the garbage collectors. They see the problem up close and
personal. Twenty-year veteran Louie Tadaro says this past summer is the worst he’s ever seen.


“Across the street there’s an alleyway and there had to be like ten of them in there, And we
started chasing them with garbage cans trying to kill them, but we couldn’t. By the time we
got there they just split.”


The problem is, they don’t split for long. Vector Control Chief Tripi says now that the rats
have relocated from the sewers to upscale accommodations, they kind of like it.


“And what that means is that they want to live with us. They want to be near our garbage and
our bird feeders. The problem with that is that rats carry diseases.”


We all know about stuff like typhus and the bubonic plague. But there are emerging diseases,
such as a pet-killer called Leptospiroris. It’s killing dogs all across the country. Tripi
says they need to get rid of the rats before the disease starts spreading to humans. So, his
team is taking the rats on, one yard at a time.


Tripi and his Vector control team set rat traps, they fill bait boxes with poison, and – when
they have to – they issue citations to residents who don’t heed the town’s new “rat control rules.” Covered garbage cans only. Clear away all brush. Clean up scattered bird seed and dog feces. Slowly, the rules seem to be working.


(sound of Tripi looking into rat trap)


Still Tripi says it’s mostly educational warfare. And he says now – heading into winter – is the
best time to nip the problem. If the rats get cozy, not only will they stay, they will multiply.
Fully nourished, one adult rat can breed up to sixty baby rats a year.


“The adult rat can live on a little bit of food, but he can’t procreate unless he has a lot of
food source. And they can’t live through the winter unless they’re warm and fattened up.”


So now is the time to – quite literally – put a lid on it. Keep those garbage cans covered, unless
you want some uninvited furry guests this winter, and many, many more come spring.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Joyce Kryszak.

Related Links

Is Sewage an Untapped Energy Source?

  • Who would've thought that sewage could produce electricity? The University of Toronto's David Bagley did. (photo by Davide Gugliemo)

A Toronto researcher says most communities are underestimating a potential source of cheap electricity – raw sewage. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:

Transcript

A Toronto researcher says most communities are underestimating a potential source
of cheap electricity – raw sewage. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:


University of Toronto professor David Bagley collected waste water at a North
Toronto water treatment plant. He took the sewage into his lab, dried it and
then burned the solids to see how much energy they produced. He estimates the
energy produced from sewage at three treatment plants could produce more than
100 megawatts of electricity. That could be enough to keep a small town going
for a year. But Bagley says few take advantage of this resource.


“Our measurements show that there’s enough energy that we should be able to
completely offset the electricity needed to run the plant, and have extra
left over the send back to to the grid.”


Bagley finds communities are reluctant to invest in the equipment they’d
need to convert sewage into power. But he’s hoping to to design a cheaper
and more efficient system so more people can get the most out of their sewage.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

Related Links

Creating New Life in Urban Core

  • This old industrial building once housed a company that manufactured refrigerator coils. Now, planners are hoping to revitalize it by making a place where artists can live and work. (Photo courtesy of the Enterprise Group of Jackson)

For many cities in the Rust Belt region, the glory days of manufacturing have long passed. These communities are now left trying to figure out how to revitalize their downtowns. One city is hoping a development for artists will create new life and draw people back downtown. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports:

Transcript

For many cities in the Rust Belt region, the glory days of manufacturing have long passed. These
communities are now left trying to figure out how to revitalize their downtowns. One city is hoping
a development for artists will create new life and draw people back
downtown. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports.


The city of Jackson is in South Central Michigan, about an hour west of
Detroit. Four blocks from its downtown, next to the old armory and the
remains of an old prison wall, there’s a smokestack and a rundown complex of
industrial buildings.


(key & sound of door opening)


“The last company that was doing full blown manufacturing in this complex of buildings was Acme
Industries that focused on refrigeration coils. We’re gonna walk straight down here.”


(footsteps on stairs fade under)


Kay Howard is a ceramic artist. She and her husband Phil Shiban are getting a tour of the
buildings. Since the early 1900’s when this complex was built, it’s been home to many businesses,
but since the 1970’s, its been basically abandoned.


“At the top of the stairs step to the right. Don’t step on the white board. It covers a hole in the
floor.”


(steps & sounds of glass & floor tiles crunching


Green and yellow paint peels and curls off the walls. The floor is littered with broken glass from
the building’s windows. And there are piles of bird droppings, broken lightbulbs, and rotting boards.
But Kay Howard and her husband are thinking about living here.


“It has so much that can be held onto. I hate seeing buildings knocked down or left in disrepair
when they could be reused and revitalized, and this just screams to have something done with it.”


These buildings are slated to become the Armory Arts Project. The plan is
to turn this 147-thousand square foot complex into an arts facility. It
would become the home to cultural organizations, arts-friendly commercial
businesses, studio space, and residential units that designed to meet the
specific living and working needs of artists, musicians, dancers, jewelers
and the like. Neeta Delaney is the project’s director.


“The driving force behind this is community revitalization. The impetus for this whole development
was really the existence of several tax-free renaissance zones.”


A renaissance zone is what Michigan calls its tax-free areas that were
created to spur development. Delaney says the project costs would
have been around 14-million dollars. They’re whittling down the out of
pocket costs by packaging together tax credits they get for cleaning
up a old industrial site, for renovating historic buildings, and for
creating low income housing. However when they approached developers with
the idea, they were told there was no way to make a go of it. But a
non-profit group from Minneapolis called ArtsSpace Projects Incorporated had a
different opinion. Chris Velasco is the director of Artspace.


“It’s not going to nor is Artspace designing it to generate
Money, but it will cover its costs.”


Artspace has successfully turned dozens of dilapidated buildings in a
number of different cities into affordable places where artists can live
and work. He says while Jackson doesn’t have a reputation as a bastion for
the arts, their market research showed there was more than enough demand
for such a facility in the city.


“If we were to create a multi-purpose arts facility use space in there we would have arts and
organizations 3-deep for every space that we create.”


He says that’s because artists have a hard time finding affordable spaces
where they can raise their kids that can also accommodate the tools of
their trade such as kilns, 10 foot tall canvases, and metal working
equipment. And he says the Armory Arts Project could fill that need.


“Isn’t this gorgeous? Oh my. Oh, this is just awesome.”


Project director Neeta Delaney leads the group to the top floor of one of
the old buildings where sunlight is streaming in through the broken
windows.


“Isn’t it great? Oh my. It is so beautiful, absolutely beautiful. And you think about residential units
up here. Live-work space, you know. This has got to be ideal.”


“This is the space that sold us on the building.”


That’s Steve Czarnecki, the CEO for the Enterprise Group of Jackson. It’s the umbrella
organization for economic development in the area that oversees the counties renaissance zones.


“Because when we first came up here, what else could you imagine this to be except a
place for artists.”


And he says once they figure out how to lure artists to Jackson it will be
easier to lure desirable high-tech business and their employees to the community.


“I think we have to increase our Bohemian Index a little bit here to attract those kind of people.”


See, artists have a track record for moving into old warehouse and industrial areas where
rents are low, fixing it up, and making a community hip and attractive.
The rub is they often then get priced out of the market. But rent at the
Armory Arts Project, like other ArtsSpace projects, will remain low.


And for artists like Kay Howard and Phil Chiban, affordable housing is one
attraction of the project. They support themselves on his pension
payments and her pottery sales. But there’s another reason they’re
interested. The couple is drawn to the idea of living with other working
artists.


“You get kind of solitary as an artist and you really need that contact and comradery and so forth,
so the idea of living in a community-type setting with other artists is very exciting.”


And she’s also excited about the prospect of being part of a project that recycles an abandoned
building and one that could bring excitement to a
downtown in need of new life.


“This has character you can’t design or duplicate. And look at the metal doors. Isn’t this amazing?”


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.