WEIGHING IN: City officials, agencies, and residents offer comments on riverfront project

As city officials continue to seek permits for the “Our River, Our Riverfront” project, a recent public input period on the project yielded 21 responses with a variety of opinions — support, opposition, and everything in between.

The Columbus Redevelopment Commission has said the Columbus riverfront project will “ultimately remove the unsafe low-head dam, repair erosion on the west bank of the river, integrate an in-river recreation piece, provide for safe fish and sediment passage and allow safety personnel undeterred access to the riverfront.”

Additionally, the project will provide a 12-foot wide trail along the east bank of the White River that helps fill a gap in the People Trail network.

The state Department of Natural Resources issued the city a conditional permit for the project in December 2020. Officials are still seeking approval from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) before the project work can actually begin.

IDEM and USACE applications have to be identical, said Redevelopment Director Heather Pope. However, IDEM is required to either approve or deny a permit within 90 days. Since the city of Columbus’ application process is taking longer than 90 days, it has withdrawn its IDEM application for the time being and is waiting for the USACE to finish its review.

As part of its permitting process, the USACE invited the public to provide feedback on the riverfront project earlier this year. According to the agency, written statements become part of the official record and are considered in its decision on the permit.

As of July 15, Pope said that the city had received comments from the USACE, as well as input from its public comment period.

“They provided those to us on June 6, and we were given 30 days in which to respond,” she said. “And so we submitted the filing on July 6, and we were able to respond to everything except the request for an additional study. … In short it’s a habitat quality study that we’re having completed. It’s my understanding they (the Environmental Protection Agency) would like a baseline of the existing habitat out there.”

City officials expect to forward the study to the USACE soon.

Public comments

The city’s redevelopment department provided The Republic with a copy of the comments received during the USACE’s public input period. In total, there were about 20 responses.

Seven individuals showed clear support for the project, including Mayor Jim Lienhoop, Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, Columbus Parks Director Mark Jones, Columbus Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator and Senior Planner Emilie Pinkston, local real estate professionals and a high school science teacher. Their reasons for support included the desire to address the dam, potential economic benefits from the project, the desire to fill a trail gap in the area, safety improvements, and anticipated environmental benefits.

“The current damaged dam disrupts the natural flow of the river,” wrote Andy Keffaber, who teaches biology and zoology at Columbus North High School. “This inhibits migration of fishes and other aquatic wildlife which also disrupts the life cycle of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians that rely on the keystone fish species. Pollutants and sediments also build up behind the present dam. Improved migration and habitat will improve with the removal of the dam miles above and below the present dam.”

Six of the public comments — including one written by Columbus Plan Commission Chair Dennis Baute — indicated opposition to the project. Concerns included ongoing maintenance, the project’s cost, potential dangers, changes to the ecosystem and debris.

“Although we want to improve the attractiveness of Columbus, make a connection for the People Trail in the immediate area, and provide a higher water level to fill the pond upstream at Mill Race Park, most people in Columbus are still against this project because of the cost and maintenance responsibilities,” wrote Baute. “Although I certainly don’t know everyone here in Columbus I have yet to find anyone favoring the project outside of city administration. Because the project has not been successfully supported by the public, I fear maintenance and future support will dwindle and not be available (leaving us in a similar situation sometime in the future).”

Baute added that most people would like to see the dam eliminated or replaced inexpensively, but he feels that combining this piece with the People Trail connection has resulted in both items being “unfairly held up for years.”

In conclusion, he wrote that his letter should be taken as “my objection to the project.”

Other responses were more ambiguous. Some individuals posed questions about the project but did not state their own views outright, and some indicated support for certain aspects of the project but not others. The latter group generally expressed approval of the dam’s removal and environmental improvements but were opposed to other features, such as the recreational piece and proposed in-river structures.

Agency responses

As part of the input process, the USACE solicited feedback not only from the public, but also government agencies and officials, Native American tribes and other interested parties.

A few of these entities submitted comments on the riverfront project, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

EPA Wetlands Section Supervisor Kerryann Weaver wrote that more information was needed on various aspects of the project.

“The applicant has not adequately characterized onsite river conditions,” wrote Weaver. “For example, there is no description of the existing aquatic plant or animal communities or physical habitat and no evaluation of river quality included within the 404 application.”

The EPA recommended that the city conduct a Qualitative Habitat Evaluation Index (QHEI) assessment to “determine the overall quality, health, and value of the local river habitat.”

Additionally, the EPA requested more information on the project’s recreational component.

“The creation of a unique recreational feature is not a water dependent activity pursuant to the CWA (Clean Water Act) Section 404(b)(1) Guidelines,” wrote Weaver. “As a result, practicable alternatives that have a less adverse impact on the aquatic ecosystem are presumed to exist. Based on the information reviewed, the applicant has not demonstrated that the project proposed is the least environmentally damaging practical alternative.”

Weaver added that one of the city’s submitted alternatives — Alternative 4 — does not include a recreational feature and is the least expensive option. While the city stated that this option was not plausible because it wouldn’t create a unique attraction or generate sales and Inn Keepers taxes, Weaver wrote that it would still provide “an attractive riverfront trail, boating opportunities, and gathering spaces to enjoy and engage the river.”

The EPA recommended that the city should provide more information on how Alternative 4 would impact aquatic resources, as well as a “more detailed environmental impact and economic analysis for all alternatives.”

The agency also expressed concern about the environmental impacts of the project’s proposed hard armoring techniques on local aquatic life and suggested the use of more natural materials for bank stabilization.

Weaver ultimately concluded that more information was required about the “anticipated functional loss” to the East Fork White River in order to help reviewing agencies decide on the best way to offset this impact. Other details are also needed to ensure that the project meets regulatory guidelines.

The DNR’s letter, on the other hand, focused on historical rather than environmental impact. The agency wrote that it has identified two nearby properties that are eligible to be included in the National Register of Historic Places: City Power House, 148 Lindsey Street (better known as Upland Columbus Pump House) and the Third Street/State Road 46 Bridge.

“However, we note that several other above-ground historic properties are in close proximity to the project location, and no area of potential effects was defined within the submission,” wrote Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Beth McCord. “Therefore, a complete analysis of the submitted project is not possible, as the information provided is incomplete.”

The agency requested more information regarding these topics.

McCord also noted that the low-head dam “may contribute to the significance of the neighboring City Power House.”

“However, as no photographs were provided within the submission, we are unsure of the current integrity of this structure and its ability to convey significance in relationship to the adjacent building,” she said. “Please provide recent photographs, keyed to a site plan, showing any buildings, structures, objects, or land that could be affected in any way by the project.”

She also wrote that the low head dam could be considered part of an archaeological site and needs to be documented prior to and during demolition.

Takeaways

“It seemed like the main takeaways would be the community understands the safety aspect,” said Pope, when asked about her takeaways from the public comments. “The community understands the environmental piece that we’re working with. And some members even went as far and were able to understand the economic benefits of it.”

However, she felt that some did not see the economic upside or the need for a trail connection.

As of mid-July, Pope said that the city was working to answer questions from the comments. In regards to how the city hopes to address the comments from the EPA and DNR, she referenced the habitat study and said that an engineering firm is addressing some of the other requests for clarification. According to the redevelopment department’s website, an on-site evaluation of the river took place in July as part of the Qualitative Habitat Evaluation Index assessment requested by the EPA.

Mikala Brown, project coordinator for the department, said that the city has received the study and will pass it along to the USACE along with a response.

“You can tell that the dam itself has already started to fail on the western bank, which is where you’re seeing that erosion that continues to creep towards the former landfill or superfund site,” said Pope, in discussing the current site conditions. “And so, in order to remove the low-head dam, we need to get into the river. And to get in the river, it’s quite expensive. And so we want to go at this systematically and most efficient, which is dewatering the river once and removing the dam and replacing it with the proposed plan at once.”

Looking ahead

When asked when the project may be able to begin, Pope said she would prefer not to speculate.

However, she did note that officials have received positive feedback regarding the project’s viability to receive a Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grant.

The riverfront project was included in the South Central Indiana Talent Region’s proposal for READI funding, which sought about $49.5 million in grant funds, with $1 million proposed for the riverfront project.

The region — which includes Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties, as well as Edinburgh — was awarded a $30 million READI grant in December.

“We presented just this past week to the IEDC (Indiana Economic Development Corp.), which is administering the READI program, and they felt that this project met all of the qualifications for those READI funds,” said Pope in mid-July. “From there, I’m not sure what the next step is for the READI committee. … The feedback that we received is that it met all of the requirements, which is to grow economic development, public safety and then help to maintain and retain talent and be attractive to the region.”

She said that $600,000 has been requested for the project. Additionally, DNR has awarded a $1.7 million Next Level Trails grant for the trail component of the project. The grant requires a 20% match by the city.

Pope added that the riverfront project will solve a lot of problems by addressing the dam, providing a “safe pedestrian trail connection,” maintaining water levels, and preventing erosion on the west side.

“This will leave the river 100% ecologically healthier than the river sits today, and I see that some public comments understand that,” she said. And so I think that that’s a shared interest.”