Delayed for years by lack of funding, a project to replace a failing dam in Michigan has now been halted indefinitely by the discovery of endangered mussels at the site.
Designs for the Lyons Dam replacement in Ionia County were funded five years ago, and the project has finally received nearly $1 million to proceed. But the work, barely underway, has been suspended.
Snuffbox mussels, on the federal list of endangered species, were found earlier this year near the 156-year-old dam when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources started surveying the site on the Grand River.
The DNR and Ionia Conservation District have since contracted with Central Michigan University biologists and students, including three graduate and seven undergraduate students, to survey how many endangered mussels were in the area.
Photos: Michigan Department of Natural Resources
About 71 endangered snuffbox mussels have been found and tagged near Lyons Dam on the Grand River in Michigan. Work on the dam has been halted until the mussels can be relocated.
Work on the dam has been postponed, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide what will happen with the mussels, which will have to be relocated before construction continues.
Mussels on the Move
The snuffbox mussel is a small, triangular freshwater mussel found in 14 states, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The mussel was officially deemed federally endangered March 15, 2012, after its population declined by at least 90 percent, in terms of range and numbers.
"Prior to constructions, the mussels will be found and relocated," said Scott Hanshue, a fisheries biologist leading the dam's removal.
"We knew it was likely that we would have to relocate all the mussels within the footprint of the project, so we've been looking for suitable locations...," Hanshue said.
"We thought we'd go upstream from the dam, but that habitat is not conducive to snuffbox mussels. But we have now found some suitable habitat downstream, so we know we'll be able to put them there."
Like Finding a 'Bunch of Bald Eagles'
The CMU biologists have worked for a month and a half—snorkeling, scuba diving, and digging in the bottom of the river—to find the mussels. The team found 71 live snuffbox mussels of varying sex and size, according to the DNR.
Now, the researchers are developing a population estimate to submit to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The village of Ionia has been trying to fund the removal of the Lyons Dam for years, deeming it at risk for failure. The state's dam removal fund appropriated just under $1 million for its removal.
Daelyn Woolnough, assistant professor of biology at CMU, said the discovery was significant for the endangered species.
"This means they're reproducing. We can't say it's the best, but it's one of the best populations in North America," Woolnough said in a CMU newsletter. "It's like the equivalent of finding a whole bunch of bald eagles when it was endangered; now, we find more because of the conservation of that species."
More work must be done to raise the mussels from the threatened level, since several factors can still keep the population from growing, Woolnough said.
"Not only dams, but agriculture, climate change, urban development, changes in the rivers, water quality issues, all of these things are affecting the mussels," Woolnough said "They can't swim or fly away, either. They just stay in one area."
An additional 20 mussel species have also been discovered. These include the Iilliput mussel and black sandshell mussels, both of which are endangered in Michigan.
"Native mussels are extremely important and unfortunately have become imperiled for a variety of reasons," said graduate student Shaughn Barnett.
"It is essential to maintain ecosystems that (the mussels) can be a part of. I hope that our conclusions will be used in a beneficial way when the decision-making process determines the fate of Lyons Dam."
Each mussel that is state or federally endangered has been tagged.
CMU biologists have been snorkeling, scuba diving, and digging in the bottom of the river for a month and a half to find the mussels.
"It's almost like a microchip, called a PIT [pass integrated transponder] tag, where we can take a device like a metal detector and find them again," Woolnough explained.
About the Dam
The Lyons Dam generated electricity until 1959 and has been owned by the Village of Lyons in Ionia County, since it went out of commission and was deeded over by Consumers Energy.
The 13-foot-high dam is a concrete-covered, rock-filled structure on the Grand River.
According to the DNR, the dam is considered at risk for failure and has been targeted for removal for years, as the village sought grants for the work. Design work for its removal was funded about five years ago.
Just under $1 million has been appropriated from the state's dam removal fund to pay for the work. The original removal plan has been modified several times, including once for potential removal issues, but it was ultimately decided that about two-thirds of the dam's height would be removed and a rock ramp would be built to allow fish passage and eliminate the need for a fish ladder.
Once the dam removal is complete, the river will function better and fish will move up and downstream more easily, according to the DNR.
And the snuffbox mussels will have a better chance of surviving.