RU reroutes Clinton River to save Palmer Hall
By Jake Feldman and Paige Steele
Palmer Hall in danger
Rochester University had a crisis on its hands. Palmer Hall, located on the back of RU’s campus, faced a 30-foot sand wall that would eventually drop the building into the Clinton River. Something had to be done.
In a very rainy summer of 2021, Palmer Hall lost about 8 feet of land, and the safety fence placed behind the building was hanging off the edge of the cliff. The days of Palmer’s existence would be limited if action was not taken.
Rochester University acted quickly and brought a group of contractors who specialize in natural revitalization to campus. The contractors acted in accordance with Oakland County executives, the Clinton River Watershed Council, the City of Rochester Hills and Rochester University on the move, making for a large-scale project with many people involved.
RU’s Jaymes Vettraino, assistant professor of business and director of the Center for Social Engagement, ran the permits. Tom Rellinger, executive vice president and chief financial officer approved the expenditure, and on Oct. 4, 2021, the project began.
A local rental company brought in heavy equipment and the contractors moved into Barbier Hall and began rerouting the Clinton River to save Palmer. This was a multi-phased project, with phases still left to be completed in the spring.
The first phase of the process involved clearcutting the trees and bushes in the riverbank area. Roughly 250 trees were felled, and a few large trees were removed and relocated to provide structure for the new riverbanks.
Next, contractors began moving excavators into the riverbank area and digging a new channel to displace water from the current riverpath and move dirt and stone into the old river channel. The crew accomplished this task in about one day, building up the land behind the Palmer cliff where the Clinton River had previously eaten away at RU’s campus.
The next step was fortifying and reinforcing the new riverbanks on each side of the water. The contractors took a natural and sustainable approach. Eric Diesing, watershed ecologist, of the Clinton River Watershed Council gave some insight on this procedure: The “use of large woody material from the site is common practice when restoring a river.”
The crew also planted grass, trees and staked in straw blankets to help the ground dry out, solidify and retain its new structure. The next action taken was sustaining the habitat of the river. Making sure the water flows in similar patterns that maintain the state of the environment, wildlife and plantlife, which was stressed by the Clinton River Watershed Council, was of high importance in this project.
The workers refined the angle of the river’s meandering points so that a natural curve existed. They also placed large stones at the turn in the river to replace the riffle that was there previously. This stage also included the process of backfilling rocks into the riverbed and riverfloor to maintain a similar ecological balance to the ecosystem that previously existed before the movement.
Once the river was reset in its new location, the project shifted to restoring the land on RU’s campus. With a project that large, a path of destruction remained after the river was relocated. Remaining were mud, logs, stones and an ugly cliff face that was an eyesore to the back side of campus.
There was also the issue of erosion occurring again the way it had in the past, so more had to be done to ensure the sustainability of the project.
The contractors dug a retention pond in the location of the old riverpath, and in the spring, they plan on backfilling it with stones and potentially stocking it with local fish species to avoid bacteria growth and invasive species taking over the location, according to a contractor on the project.
Diesing weighed in on this idea saying, “Native fish will have access to the pond from the river. Essentially it will act as an off-channel habitat. Any stocking of fish would need to be approved by the regulatory agencies.”
Finally, roughly two tons of fill dirt were brought in by the City of Rochester Hills to repurpose and restore the land behind Palmer. The dirt was packed and smoothed, and a small team of volunteers spread straw blankets and planted grass on the ravine-side to beautify the land and make it a functional river overlook.
Sidewalks were put in, and two stone paths were created to put the final touch on the area between Palmer Hall and the RU amphitheatre.
After a full two weeks of work, construction foreman David Bilderspach and the crew of restoration contractors headed back to Arkansas for the winter and asked RU to plan for the new purpose of the riverbank space.
Come Spring 2022, the team of river movers will return to RU to finish the final purposing and beautification stage of the elaborate Clinton River move project.