TRAVERSE CITY — A little time and a little patience.
Steve Largent couldn’t help but marvel at the change laid out before his eyes as he looked out on the bottomlands at Brown Bridge Quiet Area.
Largent, the conservation team coordinator for the Grand Traverse Conservation District who wrote the Brown Bridge management plan, can vividly recall what that patch of land looked like after the dam came down and Brown Bridge Pond was drawn down nearly eight years ago.
He can vividly recall the stench, too. When the dam was removed and the pond returned to its natural river state, millions of invasive zebra mussels were left speckling the muddy landscape, covering tree stumps and clinging to whatever remained. As the zebra mussels died, the stink rose.
But beauty followed the odor. As time moved on, those decaying and dried-out shells left dangling on dead seaweed and plants turned the open plain into a giant wind chime when the breeze came through. The sound was amazing, Largent said.
Largent heard all of the “dooming and glooming” about the bottomlands that followed the dam’s removal in 2013. But now, after years of restoration, planning and allowing nature to heal itself, the bottomlands are covered in lush vegetation with diverse wildlife.
“It’s so different now,” Largent said. “It just needed time.”
That healing and restoration is still progressing, but Largent and others are working to speed that process up while protecting the ecosystem.
Bulldozers, backhoes and other heavy machinery have been at Brown Bridge the last several weeks with crews working on phase two of the project. The GT Conservation District in partnership with the Grand Traverse Band, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Resources Conservation Service and the Brown Bridge Trust are addressing erosion issues that are threatening the health of the Boardman River and its inhabitants.
Crews worked to flatten a steep slope on the north side of the Boardman toward the west end of the bottomlands that was created during dam removal and when the original river channel was re-dug. Sand, soil and sediment flowed downstream during that time and gathered in manmade “sand traps,” Largent said. Those traps, which were often 8 feet wide and 10-12 feet deep, were emptied once a day and piled up on the riverbank.
Because that material was infertile and did not support growth, it was vulnerable to erosion. Foot traffic from humans and animals only worsened the problem, Largent said.
Although the 30,000 trees and shrubs planted after the dam removal and the natural plant growth that has occurred since would eventually help the issue, Largent said it won’t happen quick enough. Lending Mother Nature a helping hand while allowing people to continue to enjoy the area was the best solution.
“It was never going to heal on it its own,” Largent said. “The only way that would have happened was if we removed the aggravation — that’s the people.”
Largent admitted that some are upset by the work and acknowledged the irony that the workers and machinery are currently an aggravation to the environment. However, he said the work is a necessity and that “things are always going to look worse before they look better.”
Chad Moore, the project manager, agreed.
“Every project is always a mess,” Moore said. “When you’re cleaning something up, it always starts with a mess. We can’t make it look pretty throughout the whole process, but we’re doing what’s best for this land.”
Crews placed logs, dead trees, sticks and root wads along the riverbank and into the river to stabilize the eroding shoreline. Large ballasts cut from downed trees were connected with metal rods and then covered with soil to provide more support.
More than 300 cubic yards of composted and recycled leaves was brought in Wednesday and spread out across the bare sand and soil. That will be mixed with plant seed and then covered with straw to encourage vegetation growth, which will then secure the soil and prevent severe erosion.
Largent said phase two, which is the final large-scale portion of the post-dam removal restoration, cost about $250,000. The price tag would have been north of $300,000 if not for the National Resources Conservation Service.
Andrea Paladino, a civil engineer with the NRCS, provided planning and oversight for the project.
“This is meant to mimic a natural habitat and a naturally occurring forested buffer,” Paladino said, adding that the work will create different pool depths in the river and provide a healthier habitat for stream life. “This is sort of an intermediate step in the restoration to create that habitat while the rest of the surrounding area continues to build up.”
Phase one of the project, which did similar work further upstream, happened in 2014, Largent said. Those areas are now completely grown in.
Largent expects phase two to be complete in three to four weeks. He said they will put up signs asking people to not enter the area while it “heals.” Once plant life takes hold, which Largent said will take about a year, a bench trail down to the river will be put in to allow people access to the water while not being detrimental to the surrounding habitat.
“Having natural areas like this is critical,” Largent said. “This is such a beautiful place.”