Restoring the Flint River

Ambitious project will transform the river and Flint’s waterfront

Over the past two decades, numerous communities across the United States have used river restoration projects to reclaim neglected waterways, spur economic development and stoke community pride. Now it is Flint’s turn.

The removal of the Hamilton Dam marks the beginning of a huge project that will transform a nearly two-mile stretch of the Flint River that flows through downtown Flint. The Flint River Restoration Project, which could cost up to $38 million, will convert a largely inaccessible stretch of the river into a safer, more natural waterway — one that is welcoming to anglers, paddlers and people who enjoy the sights and sounds of flowing water.

Community leaders and government officials who worked for more than a decade to create a new vision for the city’s waterfront said the project will improve water quality, provide fish passage and create new recreational opportunities. The two-year project will improve the most degraded section of the river and fundamentally alter how people interact with it, said Amy McMillan, former director of the Genesee County Parks & Recreation Commission.

“The entire experience of going to the river is going to be different. It will be a place that attracts people,” McMillan said. “There will be better fishing, better paddling, a vibrant park on both sides of the river, and new foot bridges and trails that will connect the community in all directions.”

To date, government agencies and local philanthropic organizations have provided more than $20 million for the project. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has committed $5 million. Project managers still need to raise several million dollars to fund all the planned improvements.

“A healthy river with an attractive waterfront will be a tremendous asset for Flint,” said Ridgway White, president of the Mott Foundation. “But this is more than a river restoration project. It’s also a symbolic clearing of the mind — a signal that Flint is moving forward in the wake of the drinking water crisis.”

Naturalizing the stretch of river that snakes through downtown Flint will transform a concrete wasteland into a usable public space that is aesthetically pleasing. It also will complement the rest of the 142-mile long Flint River, parts of which are as remote and scenic as rivers in northern Michigan.

The downtown stretch of the river endured many changes over the past three centuries as Flint evolved from a Native American village into a fur-trading post, logging town and a hub of automotive manufacturing.

Hamilton Dam, which was built a century ago to power milling operations for the logging industry and provide a source of water for local industries, harnessed the river and divided it into two distinct, dysfunctional ecosystems. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funneled a two-mile stretch of the river into a concrete channel to prevent flooding of manufacturing facilities at Chevy in the Hole (now Chevy Commons).

A decade later, Riverbank Park was built to beautify the flood control project and create a series of water-based attractions. The six-block-long park, which has fallen into disrepair, features an amphitheater, large fountain and an assemblage of outdoor rooms set on terraces that step down to the water’s edge — but it doesn’t put people in direct contact with the river. The new project will.

“People who are resource-minded are very excited about this project,” said Joseph Leonardi, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources fishery biologist who has studied the river for more than two decades. “I think there is a strong sense that making the river a focal point in the community will be good for Flint.”

Highlights of the project will include:

  • Removing the Hamilton and Fabri dams, which will eliminate the last manmade barriers in the river between Flint and the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Saginaw. The Flint River is a major tributary in the Saginaw River system, which connects to Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay and its thriving walleye fishery.
  • Scattering large boulders in a section of the river in downtown Flint. The boulders will create rapids that emulate the natural shape and flow of the river, improve water quality, and create better opportunities for kayaking and canoeing. Rock terraces and vegetation also will be added to parts of the concrete channel, to provide seating and create a more natural look.
  • Completing Chevy Commons, a 60-acre park that once housed a General Motors manufacturing facility. It will feature walking trails, play areas, a bike path and a footbridge linking Chevy Commons to Carriage Town, near Kettering University.
  • Renovating Riverbank Park and adding bike/pedestrian paths. The linear park will be overhauled to improve physical and visual access to the river, add a kayak launch and redevelop the existing amphitheater. New bike paths will connect downtown Flint to Kettering University, Chevy Commons and surrounding neighborhoods. Those trails also will connect Flint to the state’s Iron Belle Trail, which will link Detroit’s Belle Isle to the city of Ironwood, in the Upper Peninsula.

“It’s so exciting to contemplate a new era of people safely fishing along the river or heading down the river in a canoe or kayak,” said Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “This project will help build a connection that Flint residents haven’t had with the river, because it wasn’t accessible.”
These before and after photos show how removing Hamilton Dam changes the complexion of the Flint River.
Photo: Cristina Wright

Before removal of the Hamilton Dam began, Consumers Energy removed about 75,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river, upstream of the dam. The contaminants were byproducts from a coal gasification plant that operated along the river in the early 1900s.

The Consumers Energy work cleared the way for the rest of the river restoration project. Though excited about the work, McMillan cautioned that restoring a two-mile stretch of the river will be a long, noisy process.

“It’s going to be messy,” she said, “but it will be super cool to watch.”

Editor’s note: Over the next two years, Mott staff will document the Flint River Restoration Project in words, photos and videos on the Foundation’s website and social media platforms.

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