USFWS Fish Passage and Partners Programs Collaborate
on Dam Removal in Northeast Michigan
BY JOSEPH GERBYSHAK, ALPENA FWCO
The Black River, part of the Cheboygan River Watershed in Michigan, has been the target of many habitat improvement projects in the past decade. The latest project is a dam removal in the headwaters of this premier cold water fishery. It has been a long time goal of resource professionals to remove Saunders Dam, a dilapidated dam on this Blue Ribbon Trout Stream exclusively managed for brook trout. Saunders Dam, named after a former landowner, was built in the early 1900s for power generation, but the decaying dam no longer served a purpose and was causing many negative environmental impacts. The obvious solution for resource professionals was dam removal.
Saunders Dam, like most dams, had many harmful effects on the aquatic ecosystem. After only ten miles of headwater stream, Saunders Dam impounded 12-acres of water with its four feet of head. The dam impounded both the main branch of the Black River and a portion of Saunders Creek, a cold water tributary. The impoundment increased the amount of water exposed to the sun, increasing stream temperatures by an average of three degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the impoundment slowed flows, causing the stream to drop its sediment load and blanketing substrate vital to stream health. The dam also created a barrier for aquatic organism passage for many species in the Black River, including native brook trout. The fragmentation of habitat impeded migration to critical spawning and nursery habitat.
Until recently, the dam and surrounding property was privately owned and the owner had no interest in removing the dam. However, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources recently purchased a 517-acre parcel of the property, which included the dam, and the property was added to the Pigeon River Country State Forest. The purchase created the opportunity for dam removal.
Many local groups collaborated to accomplish the long anticipated task of Saunders Dam removal. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Fish Passage Program and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, provided the majority of the funding for the dam removal. The Service partnered with Huron Pines, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Upper Black River Watershed Council, along with numerous local businesses and private donors to remove the dam and open up fish passage to ten miles of headwater habitat.