Returning a Trout and Salmon River to Its Natural State

Written by: Kory Boozer, Boozer’s Guide Service

Removal of the Pucker Street Dam will reconnect hundreds of river miles of trout, steelhead, and salmon habitat.
Photo by Tim Scott Images

In the late 1800s, a gem of a river in southwestern Michigan began its long journey toward being straightened, confined, and essentially held hostage, with little chance of ever being completely wild and free again. The Dowagiac River, whose headwaters are located in Van Buren County, is a diamond in the rough if there ever was one.

However, humans’ desire for more and better farm land as well as hydroelectric power have left this gem in a state of despair. Since 1996, a local group called Partnership for MEANDRS (Meeting Ecological and Agricultural Needs within the Dowagiac River System) has been working tirelessly to bring the river back to its natural state.

Resident brown trout and potadromous steelhead can coexist peacefully.
Photo by Jay Anglin Images

The Dowagiac River watershed has a unique hydrology, as one of the most heavily groundwater-fed rivers of its size in the state. More than 80 percent of the watershed is composed of highly permeable sand and sandy-loam soils, and there is lots of open space. This hydrological system produces cold year-round temperatures and stable year-round flows.

In a nutshell, we have a river capable of sustaining a world-class trout fishery here and the ability to create a healthier, more natural ecosystem benefiting a variety of native species, as well. The river and its tributaries are already home to fishable populations of brown and brook trout in its roughly 27 miles of upper reaches on the main stream. Plus, the two-plus mile section below Pucker Street Dam in Niles has fishable populations of brown trout, as well as at least one tributary that holds brookies. Annual runs of summer and winter steelhead, as well as very limited numbers of chinook and coho salmon also ascend this lower river each year. The removal of this dam would connect the lower river not just to the upper 27 miles of main river, but to around 130 miles of tributaries and over 10,000 acres of wetlands, as well.

The benefits of removing the dam will include more fishing opportunities.
Photo by Tim Scott Images

In 2006 a 1/4 mile section flowing through Arthur Dodd Park was returned to its natural streambed by Partnership for MEANDRS. Currently, the Pokagon Band of Potawotami Indians is developing a plan to return a three-mile section of river to its natural streambed, starting no later than 2018.

In 2013, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality mandated that the City of Niles which owns the Pucker Street Dam, either repair it or take it down. After a long review process, the dam was deemed unworthy of being repaired, so the city has been working to obtain funding for removal ever since. This plan, however, has not settled well with a limited number of stakeholders.

The Dowegiac’s big brown trout will have more spawning habitat after the restoration project.
Photo by Jay Anglin Images

Some anglers are worried that the addition of migratory trout and salmon, as well as native species such as northern pike and smallmouth bass would hinder resident trout from reproducing and thriving because of direct competition for food, predation, and competition for spawning habitat. When it comes to public resources, everyone’s opinion matters, but studies have shown that these concerns have little to no legitimacy, and the dam removal is going to take place regardless. Increasing the amount of viable habitat and the health of the watershed as a whole should result in a better experience for everyone, and that is exactly what the Partnership for MEANDRS, St. Joseph River Valley Fly Fishers, Trout Unlimited, and various other entities aim to do.

Many groups are working with Partnership for MEANDRS to ensure that the dam is removed, and perhaps more importantly, that the proper research is done to ensure every step taken to enhance this watershed–before, during, and after the dam is removed–is in the best interest of all stakeholders and the watershed itself.

After a century of abuse by mankind, the Dowegiac is on its way back.
Photo by Tim Scott Images

The dam removal process is expected to begin as early as 2017 or as late as 2018. It will be a huge step in the right direction to bring this watershed back to its natural state. Prior to the dam removal beginning, vast amounts of sediment that have accumulated above the dam over the years will be removed to help ensure that as little sediment as possible reaches the lower river and eventually the St. Joseph River, as well. Along with that sediment removal, sand traps will be put in place downstream of the dam to help catch the bulk of the sediment that cannot be removed prior to the deconstruction process.

If you would like to get involved, by donating time or money to the cause or if you have any additional questions, please feel free to contact the Partnership for MEANDRS via email at by by mail at:

Cass County Conservation District
1127 East State Street
Cassopolis, MI 49031

Kory Boozer operates Boozer’s Guide Service, in southwestern Michigan.

Brook trout inhabit many of the river’s tributaries.
Photo by Jay Anglin Images

2 thoughts on “Returning a Trout and Salmon River to Its Natural State”

  1. Dowagiac creek used to run behind my house. Years ago it was damned up. The people we bought it from actually had a dock.
    The river project is not going to bring it back, even though that would be part of the restoration of the river. All they have done is leave a nasty swamp.
    Also there was an island that our neighbors talked about being able to go to.

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