Crystal River Initiative Poised to Improve River’s Ecology and Recreation

Dec 29, 2023

Project Highlights

Project Type

Streambank Stabilization, Habitat Enhancement, Floodplain Restoration

River Miles to be Restored

4.8 Miles of River connected to Lake Michigan

Location of Project

Glen Arbor Township, Michigan

Wildlife to be Benefited

Steelhead, Coho Salmon, Chinook Salmon, Northern Pike, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, Yellow Perch, White Sucker, Brook Trout, Brown Trout, Rainbow Trout, Wood Turtle, Northern Map Turtle, Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, Blanchard’s Cricket Frog, Wavy Rayed Lampmussel, Ellipse, Eastern Pondmussel Fatmucket, Spike, as well as aquatic macroinvertebrates.

Site 4: Tucker Lake Outlet

Site 3

Site 2

Site 1

Project Overview

The Restoring the Crystal River Initiative is a large collective of public & private partners led by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (GTB), with CRA taking on the role of Project Manager. GTB has also contributed a large portion of the construction funding. 

The important initiative aims to tackle four stream-crossings in total. While connecting this stretch of the Crystal River to Lake Michigan, the effort will open nearly 5 miles of stream below the watershed’s lowermost Sea Lamprey barrier.

CRA and project partners successfully replaced the first stream-crossing along Leelanau County Road 675 this fall. The Tucker Lake Outlet crossing had been completely plugged, packed with debris, forcing stormwater over the road and eroding the shoulder into the waterway. A larger aluminum box culvert now spans the outlet, opening critical habitat and rectifying the long-problematic site.

Before: The Leelanau County Road Commission uses a tire to attempt to unplug the undersized stream crossing.

During: The Team Elmer’s crew works to install the much larger aluminum box culvert.

After: Just this past fall, a drone captured the new crossing from above.
The beautiful ocean-like blue color of the Crystal River, angelic wilderness surrounding it, and the long winding meanders already make the stream a premier paddling experience. However, the presence of three remaining stream-crossing structures poses a navigational challenge for personal watercraft, forcing paddlers to undergo multiple portages across County Road 675.

Recent surveys indicate that more than 15,000 watercraft enthusiasts engage in recreation on the Crystal River each year. When coupled with the over one million visitors exploring the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and its surroundings, a concerning scenario emerges: paddlers hauling canoes and kayaks across bustling roads becomes a vivid and potentially hazardous image.

Site One: A paddling outfitter passes over site one at the intersection of County Road 675 and River View Road.

Site Two: Multiple signs warn paddlers of the deteriorating culverts at site two.

Site Three: A drone site captures a canoe beginning to portage at site three.

In addition, the current undersized structures cause severe ecological damage to long reaches of the river by negatively affecting the riparian floodplains, in-stream habitat, streambank stability, and overall watershed connectivity.

The aging infrastructure also puts the transportation system at risk of failing during high-water events due to possible flooding and structural road damage. The undersized structures disrupt the natural flow of sediment and large woody debris through the system. This disruption negatively affects the natural instream habitat formation processes by reducing the likelihood that large woody debris will collect into debris jams that provide cover and create stream bed diversity.

Much of this section of the Crystal River flows through land owned and protected by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, increasing the habitat value of this stream relative to others with more development along the shoreline.

A birds-eye-view shows Fisher Lake, Tucker Lake, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore from above.

A family finishes portaging at site two. The new crossing will eliminate the need to cross the road on foot and allow the fragmented sections of the river to be connected once again.

Paddlers utilize the beautiful Crystal River on a busy summer day.

When the three remaining crossings are replaced, the need to portage along County Road 675 will be nearly eliminated, and fish and other aquatic species will reap immense benefits. This collection of projects is poised to enhance the region recreationally, environmentally, and, in turn, economically.

The initiative is scheduled to be completed by 2025. A huge thank you to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians for their partnership, and for providing nearly all the funding for this project.

Projects like this are not possible without the help of our funders and partners.

We’d like to send a special thank you to:


Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians-Bureau of Indian Affairs: Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (Distinct Tribal Program), Roads Program, and Bridges Program; USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service – Regional Conservation Partnership Program (Tribal Stream and Michigan Fruitbelt Collaborative) led by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, US Fish and Wildlife Service – Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act, US Department of Commerce – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – Restoring Tribal Priority Fish Passage through Barrier Removal under the IIJA, Leelanau County Road Commission, Trout and Salmon Foundation, DTE Energy Foundation, Walters Family Foundation, Andrew R. and Janet F. Miller Foundation, and The Brookby Foundation, United States Fish and Wildlife Service National Fish Passage Program Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Great Lakes Fishery Trust – Ecosystem Health and Sustainable Fish Populations: Habitat Protection and Restoration

Partners Involved:

Conservation Resource Alliance, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, SWCA Environmental Consultants, Grand Traverse Engineering and Construction, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Leelanau County Road Commission, Gosling Czubak Engineering, Bureau of Indian Affairs, GEI Environmental Consultants, and Natural Resources Conservation Service