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Could Flint River Revitalization Turn the Tide?

The Flint River was once the site of buzzing auto factories and tranquil parks.  Urban planners are hoping a new project will bring people back to the river once again.  

Long before the water crisis that thrust the city into the international spotlight, Flint had a strong connection to the river that bears its name.  A new project starting this week aims to re-connect residents with their river.

Churning whitewater glistens in the sun as it bursts from the shadow of Hamilton Dam. On the north bank of the Flint River, a fisherman casts his lure. Carl, as he simply introduces himself, has  found tranquility on this spot for 30 years.

“It’s fun, get away from home, relax your mind,” Carl says.  “Water always calms the mind. It’s a great go-to place. It really is.”

Carl reels in his line. Nothing.  But just then, his friend mere steps away hauls in his catch: an 18-inch smallmouth bass.

You might think this spirited moment doesn’t quite mesh with the negative media narrative about Flint and its water supply. But officials hope two major improvement projects starting this year will bring people back to the river with confidence.

The first is just getting started upstream from the dam, and the game pieces are already on the board.

“We’ve got excavators and dozers and backhoes and everything out here. It’s a kid’s dream to see all that equipment out here,” says Consumers Energy project manager Andrew Santini.

Santini points to the site where decades ago his company operated a manufactured gas plant. Over time, coal tar settled on the riverbed. The plant is long gone, but the sediment remains. Now, Consumers Energy is dredging the river to clean up the contaminants.

“The excavators will be on a barge, they’ll be digging the sediment,” Santini explains.  “That will be moved to an off-loading area, that will get put into a truck and the truck goes into one of those big tents.  The sediment will de-water, we’ll collect that water, we’ll treat it and it will go back into the sanitary sewer system by permit from the city of Flint, and then the material will go off to a landfill.”

The riverbed will be capped with layers of clay, sand and rock to prevent any residual matter from washing downstream. Santini says dredging will not impede the river’s flow or increase the risk of flood.   

The work is expected to wrap up in November. When it’s complete, a second phase of Flint’s riverfront renaissance will begin.

Hamilton Dam was built in 1920. But it won’t be around to see its centennial. It’s in deplorable condition. Four of its six gates are closed for safety, and the water level on the upstream side has been lowered to decrease pressure on the dam.

Genesee County Parks Director Amy McMillan says it’s time to remove the dam before it fails.

“We don’t feel like we’re in imminent danger of that, but as you look at the dam, you can see that parts of the superstructure of the dam are crumbling,” says McMillan.

McMillan says removing the dam will allow the county and its partners to soften the river channel and provide more access points to the river. That will also create more connectivity for walking and biking trails...and it will help restore a long suffering former gem from an earlier day in Flint’s history.

Riverbank Park is a grid of concrete slabs that was once the avant garde of 1970’s urban design.  But it’s fallen into disrepair over the years.  In the section of the park known as Marketstall Block, concrete Venetian style canals are now overgrown marshes. The Flint River is inaccessible.  

“You can’t see the river from here. Marketstall Block as it’s reimagined will remove the barriers,” McMillan notes.  “There will be a beach to allow people to get into river for fishing or paddling....eventually, swimming.”

McMillan is careful to separate what she views as two distinct issues: the Flint Water Crisis and the Flint River. One, she notes, was a man-made failure. She views the second as a natural treasure, a 140-mile watershed whose beauty is muted only in a small one mile stretch of urban core. While the city continues to remediate lead particulates in its pipe system, McMillan asserts the Flint River itself is, in her words, “extraordinarily healthy.”

Officials believe the Flint River revitalization project will spur new recreational opportunities in the city, as well as facilitate walleye migration down the river.

That’s good news for Carl, the fisherman whose love of the sport has kept him loyal to Flint for the last 45 years.

“As long as it’s positive, do what you’ve got to do,” he says.  “A lot of people don’t want to see change, but the future always brings change. We’ll go with it and see how it works out.”

Consumers Energy is scheduled to begin dredging the Flint River this week. The entire revitalization project is expected to be completed in 2019.


Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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