Joan Kreckman reclined in the shade of her sun hat and marveled at the sudden quiet of the river flowing at her feet.
For seven decades, a dam stood in the way of the West Branch Tittabawassee River at this spot where Joan sat on the riverbank. Up until this moment, the roar of water rushing through the concrete and steel structure would have been almost deafening. But the dam was gone now, having been reduced to rubble by a demolition crew that morning, and Joan was basking in the unbroken natural sounds of the river valley.
“You can hear a ripple,” Joan said. “The whole look and feel of the river has changed. It’s very peaceful.”
The West Branch Tittabawassee River winds through this heavily forested private property in southeast Roscommon County, where dense woods and shaded streams have made it a popular place for generations of sportsmen and earned it the name “Timberland.”
Built around 1950 to create a pond for fish and wildlife, the dam would remain in the river for the next 70 years. The dam’s concrete spillway, which acted as a two-foot vertical wall, kept fish from accessing more than 6 miles of quality upstream habitat.
Dams like these slow a river down, giving it more time to gather and hold heat from the summer sun. Warm water carries less oxygen for fish, promotes algae growth, and has other negative effects on the ecosystem both upstream and downstream of a dam. Areas of stagnant water gather more sediment and become shallow, while water rushing over a spillway contributes to erosion which smothers important gravel habitats under a layer of fine silt.
The Kreckmans understood the dam was not good for the river.
“We knew, eventually, the dam would need to be addressed,” said Todd Kreckman, the landowner and Joan’s son. “I wasn’t willing to put that off onto the next generation.”
Action Inspires Action
It was a news article about a 2019 dam removal project that Huron Pines managed on Middle Branch Cedar River, in neighboring Clare County, that prompted Todd Kreckman to call us about removing his dam. That project reconnected 9.2 miles of habitat in the Cedar River Watershed, eliminated the risk of a washout, and left landowner Bob Gingery with a healthy trout stream meandering through his property. “The river has found its original course again,” Gingery said. “I’ve definitely seen more brown trout since the dam came out.”
Along with taking out the dam, additional effort was made to restore the river. Sand traps were dug to capture sediment, and long rolls of coconut fiber were laid along both sides of the stream to promote the growth of new vegetation and stabilize the banks.
“It’s nice to know someone read about this project and thought they could apply it to their situation,” Gingery continued. “If you have a structure that’s as old as mine was, you’re looking at it failing sooner or later. Working with Huron Pines to remove this dam was a great decision.”
A River Reconnected
Demolition and removal of the Kreckmans’ dam on the West Branch Tittabawasse River occurred in July 2022. Joan, matriarch and de facto foreman of the Kreckman family, observed from a safe distance as heavy machinery chiseled and clawed away the rubble from the river. She was there four days a week, watching in real time as the river began to heal, while crews assembled the 30-foot aluminum arch culvert which would become the family’s new bridge to the south side of the river.
“This was not something we could do on our own, and Josh made it really easy to do the right thing,” Joan said. “I hope this encourages more stewardship of our lands and more habitat restored.”
Huron Pines Senior Project Manager Josh Leisen saw the effort through from its planning stages in early 2020 to its completion in November.
“The upper Tittabawassee River Watershed has several high quality, coldwater trout streams that are in really good condition, and the West Branch is one of the best in the bunch,” Leisen said. “The Kreckmans are a family of anglers who understood the negative impacts of the dam and we were eager to work together for the benefit of the river. By removing the dam voluntarily, the Kreckmans have helped make this river even better.”
This project was supported by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Fisheries Habitat Grant Program, a contribution from the landowner, Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network, the Saginaw Bay Watershed Restoration Fund of the Bay Area Community Foundation, and Walters Family Foundation. Engineering was provided by Huron Engineering and Surveying, Inc. Construction services were completed by Jordan Intercoastal, LLC.
Dam Removals on the Horizon
Huron Pines has three dams on deck for removal in 2024. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of small, privately owned dams scattered across Northern Michigan, the vast majority of which were built decades ago before any meaningful regulations existed.
“We’ve come to understand as a society that streams are a public resource and now there are laws to prevent new structures from being built,” Leisen said. “In the meantime we’re left with aging structures that have a substantial, cumulative impact on our watersheds and need to be addressed.”
Landowners who have dams on their property are welcome to contact Huron Pines with questions pertaining to permitting, funding, project management and to discuss potential options to remove their structures.