A river runs through it

September 14, 2009

Ford School graduates tackle cost/benefit analysis of repairs to Ann Arbor's Argo Dam

Ann Arborites live for summer's long days, ripe cherries, and sunny afternoons at the Huron River. The river is a quiet place for locals to "get out of the city" without going anywhere, and the waterway and bordering parks provide opportunities for hiking, running, cycling, kayaking, canoeing, and more.

The Argo Dam, originally built in 1820 to power flour mills and rebuilt by Detroit Edison in 1913, was decommissioned for hydropower generation decades ago but remains a key component of Ann Arbor's recreation landscape. The 3,200 meters of rowable water created by the Argo Dam makes the Huron River the venue of choice for local rowing groups. High school and collegiate rowing teams and the Ann Arbor Rowing Club make more than 50,000 trips each year through the pond created by the dam.

But the lifespan of dams is limited, and the regular need for extensive repairs has begun to raise questions about the future of the dam. A heated municipal land use debate has ensued: should the dam be removed, returning the riverbed to a more natural state, reducing noise pollution, and enhancing public recreation opportunities—but limiting options for rowers? Or should the dam be repaired?

Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) gave the City of Ann Arbor until July 2009 to make a decision. Two Ford School graduates have been instrumental in collecting the data and performing the analysis necessary for the City's decision.

Bhavani Prathap Kasina (Wege Foundation Intern, MPP '09) worked for seven months this year under the supervision of Matthew Naud (MPP ‘89), the city's Environmental Coordinator. "Prathap did terrific work," Naud said. "He provided the city with some excellent economic analysis of the monetary costs and benefits of the various options."

If the City chooses to keep the dam, costs such as construction and maintenance must be considered, but the restoration of hydropower generators could eventually offer revenue (although not for an estimated 50 years). Removing the dam would incur removal costs and possibly require dredging sediment, and offer no direct monetary benefits.


dam, Photo by John Baird

Photo: John Baird

But the Argo Dam debate provides plenty of evidence for the importance of non-monetized costs and benefits in public decision-making, as Kasina saw first-hand during a series of public meetings about the future of the dam. Environmental groups presented as passionate a case for removing the dam as did the rowers (many of whom consider themselves environmentalists) for saving the pond. "The issue generated considerable interest in the city and among local groups and communities," Kasina says. "I gained a better understanding of local communities' issues and I was able to see how political and social factors, as well as economic analyses, weigh in to the policy-making process. The cost-benefit analysis itself is just one piece of the final decision."

As of this writing, the analysis and debate go on. Taking into consideration fervent public input (some voiced on yard signs), conflicting recommendations from the two city committees with jurisdiction, and the solutions other communities have found to similar challenges, Ann Arbor Mayor and Ford School faculty member John Hieftje and the City Council requested a nine-month extension from the DEQ to gather additional information about the city's options for the dam.

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View entire Fall 2009 State & Hill here.

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