Unusually high water levels kept paddlers off sections of the Huron River this spring. But regardless of rainfall, canoeists can look forward to an easier river trip next spring. By then, the city should have completed its reconstruction of the Argo Dam headrace and embankment. Rather than hoisting canoes on their shoulders for the portage down a flight of concrete steps, paddlers will be able to stay seated as they leave Argo Pond and navigate a series of eight gentle drops and pools that brings them back to the river downstream of the dam.

Impetus for the project was not compassion for overburdened paddlers; it came in the form of an order from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. MDEQ inspections dating back to 2001 cited problems with Argo’s headrace, the long, straight channel that once carried water from the dam to a Detroit Edison powerhouse on Broadway. The reports ignited a years-long public debate about the future of Argo Dam: whether to repair the headrace, which the state believed was in danger of catastrophic failure, or to remove the dam altogether.

Environmentalists, led by the Huron River Watershed Council, wanted the dam removed. Rowers and other groups wanted it to stay. Finally, last October, the city’s Park Advisory Commission (PAC) voted to allocate $1,168,170 for changes in the headrace and embankment and the addition of recreational features. The plan accomplishes two things: it remedies the structural problems cited by the MDEQ and, because the dam stays put, makes life easier for paddlers.

Molly Wade, the city’s water treatment services manager, hopes to have the MDEQ permit necessary to begin work before the end of August, and city workers are clearing vegetation on the embankment in anticipation of the earth moving to come. Wade estimates the project will take six months to complete. In July, the headrace was a muddy expanse dotted by a few small pools.

But Cheryl Saam, facility supervisor of the city’s canoe liveries at Argo and Gallup parks, was already excited about the changes. “It will make the river much more accessible to everyone,” she predicts. Not only will paddlers be able to stay in their boats while going around Argo, but there also will be a couple of “whitewater features” built into the river–chutes that create the kind of waves that play boaters enjoy. One, placed where all boats will pass it after rejoining the river, will create mild waves appropriate for novice paddlers. The other one is optional, and will create somewhat larger waves. To reach it, paddlers must head back upriver as they leave the headrace.

Cyclists and joggers will appreciate another aspect of the project: it includes a ten-foot-wide paved path between the river and headrace. The path will offer easier transit for travelers on the county’s Border to Border trail–not least by pushing back the narrow current path’s lush border of poison ivy.

Two other groups will appreciate the changes, but they may be in conflict. The drop-and-pool headrace will be gentle enough that fish will finally be able to travel from below the dam up into Argo Pond and beyond. They ought to like that. Fishermen surely will.