Columbus is pursuing a $200,000 federal matching grant to improve its riverfront by modifying or removing a century-old low-head dam near the new Upland Columbus Pump House.

But some Columbus Redevelopment Commission members are questioning how the city can apply for grants for this purpose when it does not yet have an overall plan in place to improve its riverfront on the East Fork White River.

The commission eventually approved seeking the matching grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during its Monday night meeting, although several commission members asked what the city was committing itself to and whether the grant itself was actually for low-head dam modification or removal.

If approved, the grant would match $200,000 in funding that the city would provide for work on the dam, said Heather Pope, the city’s redevelopment director.

Earlier, the redevelopment commission hired the Ohio River Foundation as its Riverfront Project manager, and the foundation recommended that the city apply for the matching grant, for which the deadline was today, Pope said.

Karen Valiquett, a consultant for Core Planning, which is guiding the city on how to obtain a workable design plan for the riverfront, told the board at an earlier meeting that the low-head dam is of particular concern as the water’s circular motion around the dam can trap swimmers or kayakers underwater, causing injuries and even drowning. The low head dam is falling apart, she said.

When Pope said that the grant is actually to provide free flow of rivers for fish passage, redevelopment commission member George Dutro said he had to share his reservations.

Questioning whether fish passage was one of the city’s goals for the riverfront project, Dutro said he didn’t want to lead a federal agency to believe that the city had that as a goal.

While the commission members acknowledged that modifying or removing the low-head dam would help with fish passage, they were also concerned that the city had not yet chosen whether to modify or remove the dam as part of its riverfront project.

Commission member Al Roszczyk said the city’s Riverfront Committee had come to the conclusion that the low-head dam would need to be removed or be substantially modified, saying that the structure would not function as a dam after it was modified.

Roszczyk said he would hate to pass up one-to-one grant money, but he had reservations about applying for a fish passage grant when the city actually was focusing on the dam.

Dave Hayward, the city’s executive director of public works/city engineer, pointed out that the city wouldn’t be keeping its intentions a secret as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have to issue a permit to allow the city to modify or remove the low-head dam.

The city would not be required to accept the money or use the money even if it received the grant, Pope told the commission.

Commission members agreed to apply for the grant after board attorney Stan Gamso changed the wording of the resolution to say the city was encumbering up to $200,000 for the match in the event of the grant being awarded, and the redevelopment commission would still need to allocate the funds in the event that the grant is received.

In addition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant, the city also is seeking a $150,000 Indiana Department of Natural Resources grant for lake and river enhancement, also to be used for modification or removal of the low-head dam, Pope said.

What's next

In March, the city of Columbus is expecting to hear results of a geomorphic study into the implications of removing the low-head dam on the East Fork White River.

In August, the Columbus Redevelopment Commission approved up to $53,000 for additional work on the Riverwalk project — $48,500 for the geomorphic study and up to $5,000 for the research, application and administration of a grant to remove the dam.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.