Fisheries Division grant programs making big differences

two individuals discussing habitat projectThe Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Division offers several competitive grants for projects that improve or protect aquatic habitat and address aging dams. The Aquatic Habitat, Habitat Improvement Account, and Dam Management grant programs focus on addressing environmental stressors, restoring aquatic system health, facilitating aquatic organism passage, and improving ecosystem functions. Staff from the DNR's Grants Management Section and Fisheries Division work together to provide administrative and technical support to grant applicants and recipients, review and score projects, and track progress of funded projects.

The Dam Management Grant Program was established in 2012 to act on Governor Snyder's initiative to address Michigan's infrastructure as outlined in his 2011 special message. The program funds both dam removals and dam repairs.

"Dam Management Grants provide funding for projects that improve aquatic health while reducing safety risks or ongoing costs of maintaining dams that no longer serve the public's interest," said Elle Gulotty, resource analyst with Fisheries Division's Habitat Management Unit. "Applications are due in November of each year. Since 2012, this program has funded seven repair and 12 removal projects with grants totaling more than $6 million."

Michigan has more than 2,500 dams. While some dams produce electric power, recreational opportunities, or other benefits, many dams are no longer useful or are in disrepair. Many are familiar with hydropower developments, but only a small fraction of the state's dams produce electricity. Most are owned by private individuals, local units of government, or the state. All dams require constant maintenance, and in some cases major repairs are needed.

Addressing dam safety concerns is one of the primary reasons dams need expensive updates and repairs. Safety issues can be a motivation for either repair or removal depending on the wishes of dam owners and what is feasible on a case-by-case basis. Covering expensive repairs is just not possible for many dam owners.

"The Dam Management Grant Program is unique in that it offers funding for maintenance of dams that serve a valuable purpose and have either minimal negative effects or positive effects on natural resources," Gulotty said.

Sunday Lake, adjacent to the City of Wakefield in Gogebic County, provides recreational opportunities and economic benefits. In 2002, inoperable gates at Sunday Lake Dam led to extensive flood damage. In 2012, the Dam Management Grant Program funded major repairs to Sunday Lake Dam in Gogebic County, thus allowing the recreational opportunities and economic benefits to continue.

The Village of Lyons (Ionia County) faced a very different dam problem - they had a high hazard dam on the Grand River in poor condition. For these reasons, the village decided to pursue removal. In 2016, using funds from the Dam Management Grant Program, the village was successful in having Lyons Dam removed.

The Aquatic Habitat Grant Program began in October 2013 to both protect public streams, lakes and wetlands which are in good shape, and to help improve and restore systems which have been stressed or negatively affected. Since inception of the program, more than $4.5 million has been awarded. Pre-proposals are due in August and full applications are due in November of each year. Fisheries Division awards annual grants totaling about $1.25 million from the Game and Fish Protection Fund.

Scoring criteria for the Aquatic Habitat Grant Program encourages projects that protect aquatic systems before they are damaged, with the rationale being it is less expensive to prevent problems rather than try to fix them after they occur. Successful projects often have a big effect with a relatively small investment. Projects restoring stream processes like sediment transport and fish passage at the watershed level are more competitive than projects which restore a limited area.

"By emphasizing system functions and watershed-level processes, the Aquatic Habitat Grant Program is treating issues that harm aquatic resources at the scale necessary to make a difference," Gulotty said.

Free Span, the Maple River Connectivity Initiative in Emmet County, led by Conservation Resource Alliance, is an example of work at the watershed-level. The initiative has an ambitious goal, seeking to achieve 100% connectivity in the Maple River watershed, a cold-water stream which supports a trout fishery. Fisheries Division awarded the Conservation Resource Alliance with an Aquatic Habitat grant in 2014 and 2015. Multiple culverts were replaced with timber bridges that allow the streams, and fish and wildlife associated with them, to move more freely.

"Many aquatic habitat projects address multiple issues and lead to a number of win-win outcomes," shared Gulotty. "For example, replacing improperly sized and positioned culverts at road-stream crossings not only improves fish passage, but also can save on road maintenance costs and reduce risks from flooding."

In 2014, Aquatic Habitat Grant Program funding supported restoration of High Bank Creek in Barry County, a top quality coldwater stream. The restoration included removing remnants of a defunct dam which allowed aquatic organism passage, resolved erosion issues, and helped connect more than 30 miles of stream.

"This grant program has resulted in not only valuable projects, but also powerful partnerships," Gulotty said. "The High Bank Creek project success can be attributed to its many partners including a supportive landowner, the Barry County Conservation District, Road Commission, Drain Commission, Fisheries Division, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an engineering consultant, and numerous others providing technical guidance and additional support."

The Habitat Improvement Account (HIA) was established in 1994 to improve and enhance fisheries and aquatic resources affected by the operation of Consumers Energy's hydropower projects.

"The HIA is funded by Consumers Energy as part of a settlement agreement that relicensed the company's hydropower projects on the Au Sable, Manistee and Muskegon rivers," said the DNR's Habitat Management Unit Supervisor, Jessica Mistak. "Grant applications are due to the local DNR fisheries management biologist by November of each year."

Over the years, funded projects have included: stream habitat improvements, streamside rearing for lake sturgeon, boat launch improvements, stream protection from excessive sediment, fish cover structure additions, dam removals, watershed management plans, barrier and road-stream crossing inventory, and conducting research to inform fisheries management. The HIA has contributed in excess of $8.5 million and funded more than 150 projects since its inception in 1994.

In 2014, HIA funds were used to enhance fish habitat on the South Branch of the Au Sable River. Tree complexes were helicoptered in to provide additional fish habitat and cover. Fisheries Division periodically surveys the treated reach and gain information on the fishery after the project. In 2016, Fisheries Division estimated above average brook trout density and biomass (total pounds of fish estimated in the sample area). Anglers reported similar improvements.

For additional information about any of the Fisheries Division Grants, please contact your local Fisheries Management Unit Staff or visit the Grants Page.