Frankenmuth Fish Passage Project at the Cass River Dam Update

Aug 26, 2015

dam projectThere is quite a visual and historical buzz going on which has generated a host of questions and interest concerning the Cass River Dam project. I was asked to write an update on this project as I have served on the Cass River Dam Project Committee since its inception in 2005. I can honestly say this is one of the longest tenures I have personally served on any committee but it has been well worth the wait.

Since our initial committee meetings, there have been two major reasons for the necessary changes to the dam which, by the way, was originally built in 1850! First, after over 160 years of continuous use, the current dam is in need of some serious repairs by the City of Frankenmuth. A failure or collapse of the Dam would have a host of adverse consequences. In 2005 it was estimated that initial short term repairs would cost a minimum of $350,000 and that significant future funds would have to be invested as well. Secondly, the committee and City wanted to maintain the current dam in a similar state. The goal is to enhance it and leverage other funds to construct a permanent solution that maintained and actually grew ecological fish passage improvement and enhanced longer term recreational opportunities.

Given these two major objectives, our committee and a host of community leaders sought to obtain additional funding for a permanent win/win solution. With cooperation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) as the project manager and the City of Frankenmuth as the project sponsor, a permanent solution and plan was developed.

The ultimate solution decided upon is to construct a rock ramp structure which permanently solves all the major repair issues but also allows for the first time natural fish passage for upstream fish spawning. Large stone weirs are constructed on top of the ramp to form a step-pool rapids some 300 feet down stream from the current dam head which allows fish passage upstream to spawn and reproduce. When the project is complete, around mid to late September with final touch-ups in October, fish can move through the weirs in both high and low water conditions which should attract even more diverse fish species to the Cass River. The new dam will open up some 73 miles of new upstream spawning habitat that hasn’t existed since 1850 as fish could not get past the current dam. Thus, there will be a host of additional recreational opportunities created in Frankenmuth and upstream for fishing (and other water sports such as kayaking and canoeing) but maintaining the current benefits of the landmark Cass River that has become an integral part of Frankenmuth and the entire area.

The total cost for the project is $3.5 million and the federal portion of funding is 65% via USACE and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative along with 35% from the City of Frankenmuth with local matches, grants, bonds, the DDA and local contributions through area foundations and businesses including Zehnder’s. Post Labor Day, there will be considerable work done to the head of the dam that will result in a reduction of the water levels above the dam by nearly four feet for a period of two to three weeks. Once this work is fully completed, water levels above the dam will revert back to their historical norms and be maintained at the same levels as in prior years.

The weir stones being used for the project are limestone from the Alpena, Michigan quarry. There will be 2,200 stones with a total weight of over 6,000 tons! The ramp wedge or foundation rock is sourced from Bay Port and Alpena, Michigan and will consist of over 14,000 tons of stone.

Although a host of fish species will benefit from this project, in particular walleye and lake sturgeon are critically important to the Saginaw Bay Fishery. These two species rely on use of rivers and tributaries for spawning and reproduction before returning to the Saginaw Bay system where they spend the most of their adult lives. Improving the access of the Cass River bodes well for natural fish reproduction for not only the Cass River system but the entire Saginaw Bay watershed.

Should you want to learn more about this exciting project, please visit:

Bill Parlberg
President, COO of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth

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