To contact Barry County Drain Commisioner:
Tammy Berdecia, Deputy Drain Commissioner
Barry County Courthouse – Floor 3
220 W State St
Hastings MI 49058
Main: (269) 945-1385
Fax: (269) 948-4884
Monday – Friday
8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
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The Coldwater River Drain Disaster
This article was written by Brian Burroughs and originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Michigan Trout Unlimited magazine.
In much of southern Michigan trout streams are a rare breed. There are a lot of reasons for this rarity, some natural, but many are the result of us turning this part of the state into a “working landscape”. It’s filled with urban areas and farmland that completely altered the natural hydrology of our southern Michigan streams rendering them impaired or broken in terms of cold, clean water. So the rare handful of streams that have persisted cold enough and high quality enough to still support trout are coveted and revered around here, where most of the residents of the state live. These southern Michigan trout streams are analogous to a trillium flower growing up through a crack in a busy downtown sidewalk, or in the middle of a tilled and sprayed corn field. If this trillium were up north, we might not give a second look, but to find one surviving close to home in spite of its conditions offers hope, inspires reverence and stewardship, and makes some of us think we might just be able to make some more of these trilliums grow here. The Coldwater River, located about 40 minutes west of Lansing was one of these rare trilliums of a trout stream. That is until this past 6months when the Drain Commission and its agents dug a 12 mile long trench in the ground around that rare little blossom.
The Coldwater River, also referred to as the Little Thornapple River, originates at Jordan Lake (in the town of Lake Odessa),flows southward almost to Hastings, turns northwest and then flows downstream till I joins the Thornapple River, which then joins the Grand River. Despite originating from a lake and flowing through farm lands, this river kept temperatures cold enough to support brown trout. The DNR had augmented natural reproduction in the river by stocking some brown trout into the river system since at least1979, with numbers stocked dropping through time from~8,000 down to ~2,000 – 3,000 in recent years.
Among property owners on the river and local area residents, trout fishing this river was pervasive. TU members from Lansing to Grand Rapids frequented the river as their local trout angling waters, and over the last decade or so had invested significant time, energy and money into enhancement efforts in this watershed, including the removal of the Freeport Dam last year. Among those anglers to covet angling here include DNR Fisheries Division Chief Jim Dexter and well-known Michigan trout guru Jim Bedford.
Bedford, who has fished more of the state’s trout rivers than just about anyone, and who authored books and innumerable magazine articles on Michigan’s trout waters, identified the Coldwater River as having produced more trophy brown trout for him than any other river in the state. Michigan Out Of Doors Television Associate Producer Jordan Browne caught his personal best brown trout from the Coldwater River, and recently aired a segment on the damage done here [www. michiganoutofdoorstv.com Episode 1518]. Normally I’d never divulge such privileged information, but unfortunately it won’t offer that kind of quality fishing any time soon now.
This trout stream is also a designated drain, under the Michigan Drain Code. One look at this river from aerial photos would confirm that is was long ago designated as a drain and dredged and straightened, removing all of the natural meanders from it. As it flows through three counties, Ionia, Barry and Kent, its maintenance as a drain is governed by an Inter County Drain Board, made up of the drain commissioners from each of those counties (John Bush – Ionia, Russ Yarger – Barry, and Bill Byl – Kent), plus a representative from the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development. This Inter County Drain Board oversaw approval of the contract for the work that led to the devastation. However, since all of the work conducted was within Barry County, oversight for the work (or lack of it) was largely left to the Barry County Drain Commissioner – Russ Yarger. The contractor that did the actual damaging work was Roger Geiger of Geiger Excavation in Woodland, Michigan.
The Drain Commission maintains right of way easements along both sides of the designated drain, to conduct maintenance work. The Michigan Drain Code, commonly known as the most far-reaching authority granting statute on the books, gives the Drain Commissioners nearly unchecked authority to initiate and execute drain maintenance work, avoid almost all of the permitting requirements mandatory for everyone else working in or along rivers, and authority to assess the costs of such work to all property owners in the drainage assessment district (without requiring approval by them for the taxation).
These far-reaching authorities and exemptions from regulations create the environment for abuse of these privileges and abuse of our public waters. As a whole, drain commissioners have attempted to create and adhere to guidance or BMP’s for much of the work they do. Many commissioners attempt to adhere to best practices, and some are even recognized for their natural resource stewardship and partnerships with local conservation groups. However, the authorities currently provided to them as a whole continues to nurture “bad actors” and defy their best efforts at self-regulation. Over the past few years, we’ve seen significant stream damage from drain maintenance work about once per year. Just last year, about 3 miles of the Battle Creek River (optimal pike habitat) was similarly torn up. The damage to the Coldwater River was not an isolated first, but the most recent and most extensive.
The impetus for this drain maintenance work was complaints from several residents on Jordan Lake, complaining about flooding issues. For now, try to forget the fact that lakefront property owners live at the interface of the water table, and that the last few years have seen increases in water tables as evidenced in the dramatic reversal of Great Lakes water levels. Try to forget too, that a small dam exists at the outlet of the lake, which could have been lowered or removed to convey water and alleviate flooding on the lake. Try as well to look past the fact that zero reports of flooding on any agricultural acreage in the drainage district were reported to the Inter County Drain Board. Surveying of the longitudinal profile of the river should have been ordered as the basis of determining and justifying whether drain maintenance was actually needed to alleviate upstream flooding issues. It wasn’t. Rather, the Board noted in its meeting minutes that it remained unconvinced that the drain maintenance work would alleviate the Jordan Lake flooding issues, yet proceeded to authorize and contract for the work from the outlet of the lake downstream approximately 12 -14 miles. To date, we have not acquired a copy of the actual contract, but in public meetings it has been communicated that the contract was essentially for the removal of dead or live ash trees along the river course, and possibly for the removal of large wood debris jams. The contract was awarded to Geiger Excavation and commenced in November of 2014. According to numerous public comments provided at two public meetings this spring, numerous landowners issued comments of concern to the contractor and the Barry County Drain Commissioner as the work progressed. [Worth note: many of the property owners confronting the contractor in person, were told by the contractor that
TU was behind the work being done, and may even come through after it to set up recreational access trails across their private property!] For unknown reasons, it now appears that the contractor was doing work outside of the scope of contract. By spring of 2015, the work had progressed far enough downstream that TU members were able to witness the scope of the damages via public road crossings. Complaints were filed by many people, and about a month later, at a meeting of the Inter County Drain Board, the work was finally officially stopped. The damages had proceeded approximately 12 -14 miles downstream from the lake outlet.
Official assessments of damage are now underway; generally speaking though, it appears wood was removed from in the stream, as well as from two other small tributary streams entering the Coldwater River, live trees of many species were cut from along the river banks (one property owner reported her stand of veneer quality black walnut trees were cut as well), stream banks were excavated, and some evidence suggests that the streambed was excavated in places as well.
In a violation notice issued from the DEQ on April 17, 2015, the DEQ noted that it either believes or suspects that violations of Part 4, 31, 91, 301 and 303 of NREPA have occurred. Trout in the Coldwater River system will experience the damage caused here in several ways. First, wood cover in the stream was removed, and is essential to whether a trout will inhabit it. Secondly, the stream banks have been badly perturbed, which along with the work conducted, can be expected to lead to sedimentation of the river.
Several property owners have already noted observing sedimentation of riffles and pools along their sections of river. But perhaps the damage with the greatest long-term consequence for this fishery, is the loss of significant amounts of the canopy cover over such a long stretch of it. With this loss of canopy cover will come increased warming of the waters. Only time will tell how great a warming affect this will have on this river, and whether it will render the river outside the temperature range to sustain trout in the future. Mature canopy trees are not easily or quickly replaced.
What’s Being Done
The Inter County Drain Board appears in comment at two public meetings, to acknowledge the damage done here, and to be initiating steps to address it. They contracted Aaron Snell of Streamside Ecological Services, to begin developing a short-term remediation plan, as well as a long-term remediation plan. Snell is a private consultant specializing in stream restoration, who along with being a TU member, has worked with local TU chapters and the Coldwater River Watershed Council on past Coldwater River restoration projects, and was also one of the first to issue complaints about the work to the Inter County Drain Board. A response to the DEQ’s violation notice will be prepared, and the restoration plans shared with them. The Inter County Drain Board has communicated its intent to seek input on the plans from TU and the local Watershed Council after discussing it with the DEQ. We expect the remediation to address urgent sediment erosion measures first, followed by longer term restoration measures after that is completed.
A group of state agencies and conservation groups has formed to set up enhanced long-term monitoring plans to track the impact and hopefully recovery of the Coldwater River. That work is being formulated at the time of writing this. MITU expects to use its River Stewards program to deploy water temperature loggers through the impacted reach this summer, as well as conduct instream fish habitat assessments to help guide long-term restoration work.
Legal actions to be pursued are unclear at this time, but are being evaluated diligently. The DEQ has issued a notice of violation and will be pursuing action on the statutes it believes have been violated. The Inter County Drain Board has retained legal representation. We do not know what actions they will take at this point, but would expect them to pursue breach of contract complaints with the contractor. We might also expect individual or class action landowner claims of damages to their property rights, property values, and intrinsic property uses to be directed at the contractor and/or Inter County Drain Board.
The Coldwater River Watershed Council has retained legal representation and is evaluating its course of action. And of course, MITU has legal counsel for this matter and is evaluating actions it may need to take. Lastly, legislative action needs to occur. The Coldwater River was not the first stream victim of the Michigan Drain Code, and without reform to it, will not be the last.
The Michigan Association of Counties, Drain Commissioners and the companies that service them collectively form a very effective lobbying presence in Lansing. Their opposition to reform of the Drain Code will result in a long, difficult and dogged fight. We are hopeful that they will recognize that their best collective efforts to self-regulate against these types of incidents are not resilient to their own worst actors, and these incidents paint their entire community in a horrible light. These streams are public resources, waters of the State, and are capable of providing multiple services to all of us simultaneously, whether its drainage, aesthetics, private property rights, or incredible angling… if we are careful and judicious in our management of them. MITU will be looking to partner with the Drain Commissioners to accomplish some sensible and needed reform to the Drain Code to ensure this kind of natural resource damage does not occur in Michigan again. We’ll keep you informed of how this issue develops, and will be working in the meantime to see it develops well.
Residents along Coldwater River outraged at destruction / 4-23-15
Thu, Apr 23, 2015
Work has been stopped, but irreparable damage has been done to the Coldwater River in northern Barry County, according to the more than 60 people who packed the Freeport Fire Barn Thursday, April 16. They express their outrage over destruction along the Coldwater River, after the county’s drain board authorized a local contractor to remove trees within the drain right of way.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environmental Quality are now questioning the work of Geiger Excavating, the contractor hired by the county drain commissioner to carry out the project.
Geiger Excavating was contracted to clear from the Coldwater River to facilitate water flow along its 14 miles, but instead, according to complaints filed by residents with the DEQ, destroyed parts of the ecosystem.
The special meeting was set by the Little Thornapple River Intercounty Drain Board in order to address growing public concern over what residents claim is total destruction of the riverbanks along the Coldwater River. The intercounty drainage board is comprised of the county drain commissioners from Barry, Kent and Ionia counties. Because all of the work was in Barry County, the Barry County Drain Commissioner was designated by the drainage board to administer this project.
Residents along the river say when they received notice of the clearing, they had no idea that it would be cleared with such magnitude.
One resident at the meeting in Freeport, said she envisioned men coming in with chain saws to clear the dead trees, but never envisioned huge excavating equipment making its way along the river, clearing almost everything in its path.
John McKenzie, who described himself as a concerned citizen and spokesperson for the Little Thornapple River Drain Committee, listed several concerns, including drain code compliance, required permits, the proposal and its specifications, the contractor exceeding the scope of those specifications, and the county’s failure to monitor the work.
Local fisherman were also on hand at the meeting to express their own outrage at the destruction of what they consider to be one of the best trout fishing rivers in the area, if not the state.
“When I moved here to take a teaching job at Lakewood, I was thrilled to find a local river with such great trout fishing,” said Hastings resident Ron Barch. “Now, that is no longer the case.”
Barch said he told Yarger there would be plenty of volunteer help to clean up what needed to be cleaned and still preserve the sanctity of the river.
“This did not have to happen,” said Barch. “I had hoped to teach my grandson to fish on the Coldwater, but now I can’t because there won’t be any fish.”
Pete Farman, a Sunfield resident, who anticipated fishing the Coldwater River with his son, encouraged the drain commission to start working on remediation immediate, to which he received a round of applause from the crowd.
Representatives from Trout Unlimited expressed their concern about the condition of the river, now that so many trees had been cleared from the banks, removing the shade that kept the river cold enough for the trout to inhabit it.
“They may be called drains,” said Brian Burroughs, Trout Unlimited representative. “But they are still rivers. What happened here is pretty egregious. There are things you can do, but shouldn’t.
Michigan Department of Natural Resources representative Scott Hanshue said the DNR used to stock both rainbow and brown trout on an annual basis. He said the decision has not yet been made whether this will continue, based on the changes to the river.
The drainage board, which MDARD chairs, started an investigation into whether the contractor went outside the authorized scope of work in a report dated April 13.
The issue of removing the trees within the drain right of way began last year, after several residents on Jordan Lake complained to the drainage board about flooding. Fallen ash trees, they said, were prohibiting drainage from the lake, causing flooding.
A report by Brady Harrington, chair of the Little Thornapple Intercounty Drainage Board, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the board began meeting in August, in response to flooding concerns around the lake. The landowners believed their problems could be solved through clean out, including excavation of the drain downstream of the dam.
The project, which included a bid process overseen by the Barry County Drain Commission, had specific guidelines for what trees or woody material would be removed, how it would be removed and how disposed.
The drainage board specified that that no excavation of the stream or banks was to be done and that only selective tree clearing and debris removal was to occur which are exempt from Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permitting.
Geiger Excavating was awarded the contract for a bid of $139,840, with work to be completed over a two-year period; the annual maintenance allowance for the 13.7-mile drain was $70,000 per year.
In January, the county informed Harrington it was having problems with a landowner who was preventing the contractor from completing work on his property. The county sent the property owner a letter advising him to allow the contractor to continue his work. Harrington said this was the last he heard about the project until March 16, when he attended a Michigan Association of County Drain Commissioners committee meeting for developing standards for obstruction removals.
Aaron Snell of Streamside Ecological Services, who also serves as a member of the committee, informed Harrington that he had been receiving complaints regarding the work from members of the Coldwater River Watershed Council.
Snell emailed Harrington April 3, saying he had walked the lower portion of the drain in the vicinity of Brown Road, and from that inspection, now realized why everyone was so upset.
Harrington met with Snell and Roger Geiger, of Geiger Excavating, along with his subcontractor, Ron Beard, at a farm near Carlton Center Road. Geiger acknowledged there had been concerns, but said he was not aware those concerns had been elevated to the level of the director’s office or the governor’s office.
Harrington specifically laid out concerns that had been raised with MDARD: a significant number of live trees had been removed in the process of clearing of ash trees; trees were being grubbed, rather than cut as the contract specified; streambanks had been disturbed and excavation had occurred, which was not called for in the contract; additional work had been done downstream of M-43 and on a tributary, Messer Brook, which had not been formally authorized by the drain board.
Geiger acknowledged that a large number of trees had been cleared, but in his opinion only when necessary to access the many logjams in the drain. The number of trees taken were larger downstream of M-43, he said, due to existing spoil piles that had never been leveled in the original construction of the drain, and needed to be leveled in order for him to travel along the drain and access standing dead ash and logjams in the drain. He said trees had been growing on the top of the spoil banks, and in some places trees on the top of the bank had been grubbed in order to level the spoils. But Geiger said he had not grubbed trees, particularly dead ash, that had been on the slopes of the drain.
He also said he had removed sediment bars in the locations where those bars had forced the river onto the opposite bank, causing erosion to that bank, and that all the locations where he had done so, he had received direction and approval from Russell Yarger, the Barry County Drain Commissioner.
Geiger said it had not been made clear to him that there was a requirement for a formal contract change form the drainage board to continue working downstream of M-43. He said he contacted Yarger, informing him that due to weight restrictions on the roads, he would be continuing work downstream.
Regarding Messer Brook, Geiger showed Harrington text messages between himself and Yarger, in which he sent a picture of the tributary asking what he should do. Yarger’s response was to “tidy it up.”
Harrington and Geiger inspected the drain downstream of M-43. Harrington noted that conditions largely supported Geiger’s claims. Harrington reported a significant number of cut stumps and little evidence of disturbance to the banks of the drain. Spoils at the top of the drain, which were largely comprised of gravel, had been leveled, and there was a travel way at the top of the drain. Cut trees, both live and dead, had been piled or windrowed, behind the remaining portions of the old spoils. The two men discussed stabilization, and Geiger told him Yarger had purchased seed and intended to plant it along the right of way with his own maintenance crew.
In areas where Geiger had done work beyond the scope of his original proposal, he assured Harrington he had consulted with Yarger each time.
In the area between Brown and Messer roads, where clearing had recently concluded and cleanup of trees had not yet been completed, Harrington noted that significantly more live trees had been cut than in the prior section. In addition, he said, significant clearing had occurred on Messer Brook.
Snell and Harrington also inspected the work that had been done on the drain. Retracing steps, both men took on separate inspections, Snell had minor concerns regarding what he believed were spoils from the river in nearby wetlands.
After seeing the upper reaches of the drain, Snell said he felt better about the overall clearing project, but still had grave concerns about the most recent work that had been completed, beginning somewhere upstream of M-43 and downstream of Andrus Road, especially in the vicinity of Brown Road. He said he is of the opinion that the damage to the stream channel and riparian area will be very difficult to mitigate.
Many landowners along the Coldwater River agreed with Snell’s assessment, and spoke to the devastation to the river along their property. Some described it as looking like a war zone. Others described the loss of hiking and horse-riding trails, complained of four- to six-foot piles of brush, and mud piled up chest high along the banks. All expressed concern that the destruction has lowered property values.
At its most recent meeting, the Little Thornapple River Intercounty Drain Board passed a motion to retain Streamside Ecological Services, contingent upon a proposal to be made by Harrington. The proposal would have Snell work alongside Harrington to begin the process of determining what happened, and if any work was done outside of the scope of what was contracted, and determine what needs to be done moving forward.
Property owners asked Snell what could be done in the meantime. Snell said the answers would be site-specific, and he would have to have time to get out along the river to determine what could be done in each area. Silt fences, or erosion blankets, were suggested as starting points.
The suggestion of a website to provide information on meetings, findings and what land owners can do was suggested, and Chris Freiburger from the DNR agreed to work on that.
The matter is an open investigation. The drainage board has hired attorneys to identify its legal recourse under the state’s drain code if it verifies wrongdoing in the case.
The project’s intent from the beginning produced a break in the main line of communications between the DEQ, the DNR and the county, according to Brad Wurfel, director of communications for the DEQ.
“There are four entities now involved,” said Wurfel. “The DEQ, the Department of Agriculture and DNR and Barry County’s drain commission. All groups must come together to discuss a plan to address it. There is a bigger conversation that must be had, and currently we are in response mode.”
Notices of violations were sent out to the Barry County Drain Commission, and it has 30 days to respond, said Wurfel. These notices are violations of state inland water statutes and are not tickets, they are the start of communications, he said.
The county must respond to the violations with a description of the incidents in question, outlined steps on how it will fix the issues, he said, and a plan to prevent the situation from occurring again.
“We, as a group, must figure out how to mitigate the damage, stop further damage and provide modes of clean up,” said Wurfel. “Any penalties to be assessed will be addressed afterwards.”
Yarger concurred with Wurfel, saying meetings between the entities have begun.
“Another meeting with the DEQ is planned for next week for the drain commission to put our plan in place to answer the violations,” he said.
Yarger said he did not anticipate Geiger Excavating would found at fault, but added, “We will have to wait and see.”
He said all correspondence regarding the issue would be available on the county’s website, www.barrycounty.org.
Don't bother fishing West Michigan trout stream after DEQ finds violation, expert says
on April 23, 2015 at 12:21 PM, updated April 23, 2015 at 3:41 PM
BARRY COUNTY, MI – Extensive tree removal along the Coldwater River has destabilized the banks and prompted a violation notice from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
And it could make the coldwater fishery southeast of Grand Rapids inhospitable for trout, said the head of a statewide fishing organization.
The DEQ ordered work to stop and now wants local officials to come up with a plan to stabilize the riverbanks and prevent erosion. In the meantime, the trout habitat has been compromised in advance of the Saturday, April 25, opening of the statewide trout season, said Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited.
"This amount of devastation, I would not have anybody go and waste their time trying to fish this now," he said. "I would not go there unless you go downstream a ways.
"These mature trees are gone. If we were even able to fix some of the erosion, the one problem that I'm really concerned about is the lack of canopy. We can't just go put mature trees in. If that amount of sunlight over 14 miles warms this creek up a couple degrees, there's nothing we can do but wait. There will be nothing but 15 to 20 years of a lost fishery."
An inter-county drain board authorized the tree removal to improve drainage along a 13-mile stretch of the river, but how the work was done has compromised the habitat of the trout stream, a DEQ administrator said. The clearing, as well as some dredging, was done from Jordan Lake downstream to the Freeport area near where Barry, Ionia and Kent counties meet.
The DEQ sent a violation notice to the Little Thornapple River Intercounty Drain Drainage Board as well as Barry County Drain Commissioner Russ Yarger and the contractor, Geiger Excavating.
"Drain commissioners do this work all the time, but the key here is you have to do it with care," said Luis Saldivia, Grand Rapids district supervisor for the DEQ's water resources division. "If you cut a tree on a bank, that's one thing. If you remove a root mass and make the bank of the river unstable, that's another thing."
The DEQ is investigating what the plans were for the work and the contract issued for the job, Saldivia said. They also want the drainage board to make a plan for stabilizing the riverbanks by planting trees and installing erosion control fabric, he said.
Burroughs said the work "basically excavated the banks on both sides the whole way," eliminating an overhanging tree canopy that helps keep the stream cool. Without that shade, the stream could warm and make it unsuitable for trout, he said.
Trout habitat also is getting damaged by sediment from the cleared banks eroding into the river, Burroughs said.
"It was mostly supposed to be for the removal of dead ash that could fall into the river and maybe create some flooding hazard in the future, but there was a lot more trees than just the dead ash removed," Burroughs said. "The entire tree canopy for quite a ways back on each side was removed. It immediately allows in a lot more sunlight to warm the stream up.
"In some streams, that's not the end of the world. But in southern Michigan, having 14 miles of it cleared out where it's going to have the sun beating down on it is probably going to make the water too warm for trout."
Tree-felling along Michigan river may hurt trout habitat
WOODLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. – It may take years before a western Michigan trout habitat recovers from damage caused when a drain commission contractor's crew cut down mature trees along a 13-mile stretch of river, according to a fishing group official.
Trout season opens Saturday, but it would be a "waste of time" to fish along some sections of the Coldwater River system that no longer have foliage to provide cooling cover for the water, said Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited.
The tree-cutting included a stretch of the Little Thornapple River, a Coldwater River tributary in Barry County's Woodland and Carlton townships. It's about 30 miles east-southeast of Grand Rapids.
"This amount of devastation, I would not have anybody go and waste their time trying to fish this now," Burroughs told the Grand Rapids Press. "These mature trees are gone. If we were even able to fix some of the erosion, the one problem that I'm really concerned about is the lack of canopy.
"We can't just go put mature trees in. If that amount of sunlight over 14 miles warms this creek up a couple degrees, there's nothing we can do but wait. There will be nothing but 15 to 20 years of a lost fishery."
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has halted the work and is asking local officials to come up with a plan to stabilize the riverbanks.
A drain commission authorized the tree removal to improve drainage, but the way the work was done has compromised the habitat of the trout stream, said Luis Saldivia, district supervisor for the Department of Environmental Quality's water resources division.
The department sent a violation notice to the Little Thornapple River Intercounty Drain Drainage Board, Barry County Drain Commissioner Russ Yarger and the contractor, Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Geiger Excavating.
"Drain commissioners do this work all the time, but the key here is you have to do it with care," said Saldivia. "If you cut a tree on a bank, that's one thing. If you remove a root mass and make the bank of the river unstable, that's another thing."
The Associated Press left phone messages for Yarger and the contractor seeking comment.
Coldwater River board focuses on consent agreement with MDEQ / 11-5-15
Thu, Nov 05, 2015
Members of the Little Thornapple River Inter-County Drain Board met Wednesday to hear a maintenance update from Aaron Snell of Streamside Ecological Services on restoration of the Little Thornapple River, receive an update on an Oct. 19 meeting with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, an emergency update by SES and information from SES regarding property owner requests for assistance with clean up, as well as handle routine business.
The Little Thornapple River, also known as the Coldwater River, gained much attention earlier this year after a contractor removed trees, shrubs and other plants along the banks of the waterway that runs across the north side of Barry County.
Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Deputy for the Director chaired the group that met without a representative from Ionia County, since Drain Commissioner John Bush, retired Oct. 30. Robert Rose has been appointed to fill the vacancy, but doesn’t start until Nov. 9.
In a maintenance update, Snell reported that more than half the areas with issues along the river have been addressed, as far as dealing with branches, debris and logs. Brad Boomstra, a civil engineer from Kent County, has developed an estimate on what is needed to stabilize a gully on the north side of M-43.
Just over five minutes into the meeting, a motion for the board to go into closed session to hear legal opinion from Fahey, Schultz, Burzych and Rhodes was made and approved. Along with Snell and Boomstra, attorney Michael Woodworth represented Kent County, Michael Gregg represented MDARD and Joseph Colaianne represented Barry County in the closed session.
After more than an hour, they returned.
Attorney Stacy Hissong shared with those in attendance that the Oct. 19 meeting with the Michigan DEQ went well, and plans are in place to work out a consent agreement. A consent agreement would spell out the method and timetable for restoration, and means the DEQ would not pursue enforcement of violations or fines that may have been incurred as Geiger Excavating performed tree removal along the banks of the Little Thornapple River in late 2014 and early 2015.
A proposal and specifications drawn up before bids were taken and Geiger was awarded the job indicated there was to be no grubbing of stumps, which means all trees were to be cut flush with the ground. According to homeowners all along the river, grubbing did take place — trees were uprooted, and there was more dredging than necessary to simply clear the river, which is a drain, as well.
In a personal written account of what happened on her property, Marcia Culhane said she felt misled about the extent of work that would be done. She claims to have tried contacting the drain commissioner and was unsatisfied with the response. Culhane said the work done on her property totally changed the bank and the flow of the river.
“Our riverbank is now a total mine field of broken glass and rusty metal that is amazingly mixed with smooth river stones,” said Culhane. “We fish, and had a beautiful cleaned-up area that was a family gathering spot for bonfires. That is now gone.”
Snell will be doing a walk-through Thursday, Nov. 5, with the DEQ representatives. Hissong received approval to work with the DEQ to set the terms of the consent agreement. Hissong indicated she is not comfortable entering into a consent agreement with no money in place to fund the conditions of the agreement. She was approved, along with other counsel, to begin exploring ways to look at finance options. No money s left to cover restoration work this year, said Hissong. Next year’s budget will provide $75,000 to work with.
In an emergency maintenance update, Snell told the board that the DEQ is still concerned about two gullies on either side of M-43. Boomstra is working on a design together to fill in with soil and pulling out polluted sediment. Ross Jackson with Jackson Dirt Works said he could do both for about $5,000. Jackson has been doing most of the restoration work already.
Snell also shared information from two property owners who asked for his help with cleanup of the river bank on their properties. When asked if those properties were any worse than others, Snell said they were not worse, but the owners approached him for help. One owner has some issue with debris in a wetland area. Hissong suggested the property owners work with Snell to help resolve their issues.
During public comment, the question of accountability was raised. Hissong said the board members felt their time and money was better spent on restoration and working with the DEQ.
John McKenzie brought up invoices from Geiger Excavating that show while Geiger under-billed for work done on several sections of the river, he over-billed on several others, and billed for one section where no work was done. In the end, McKenzie said, Geiger was overpaid, and McKenzie asked why the board does not request the money be recouped.
McKenzie was told there were two invoices billed that the board has not approved payment on, even though Roger Geiger’s attorney has sent demand letters. Again, McKenzie was told, the board’s focus is on fixing the problems, and the resources just aren’t available to chase money someone may not even have, since Geiger is out of business at this point.
McKenzie asked if the two property owners mentioned were the only two with problems, specifically wetland issues. Snell answered no, but they were the only two who approached him.
It was suggested, that with a $75,000 annual budget, it could take years before all property owners see real work done toward restoration.
When one attendee asked at what point drain commissioners were going to be held accountable, Colaianne jumped up, saying, “We will not put Russ Yarger on trial here.”
Hissong responded again, saying the board focus is on finding ways to use funds in the most efficient way.
When asked if Geiger was bonded, Yarger said he was not, but he was insured. A short discussion followed with the question raised whether property owners could file a claim with Geiger’s insurance carrier for damages, and whether the three counties could be held liable through their insurance for damages.
Colaianne said drain boards are separate entities and do not fall under county liability insurance.
Check the Barry County website for information on the next Little Thornapple River Inter-County Drain Board meeting, www.barrycounty.org.
Coldwater River, water use topics of environmental issues forum / 1-28-16
Thu, Jan 28, 2016
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality still has not released its plan to restore the Coldwater River after last year’s clean-up effort caused what some say was damage when dozens of trees were cut down along the river’s shoreline.
The update came from representatives of the Coldwater River Watershed Council as part of the environmental issues forum hosted by Pierce Cedar Creek Institute Thursday. Almost 30 people attended the forum at the Barry Community Center in downtown Hastings.
“I’d like to tell you why it’s so important,” council member Ron Barch said of the Coldwater River.
Barch proceeded to share what several friends had to say about the Coldwater River and trout fishing in its clear waters. One friend compared the river to the streams in northern Michigan, while another friend was reminded of a popular river in England.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful spot right now,” he said. “But the Coldwater River is threatened.”
Barch said that the drain-cleaning project of early spring 2015 has caused a number of problems, including a loss of canopy covering and erosion of the river’s banks.
Council member Samuel Pyle spoke next. He said that those along the river were told that ash trees were going to be removed, and that there had been a problem with ash trees. However, ash trees weren’t the only vegetation that was being removed.
Once the residents realized what was actually happening, he said, it took three to four months of emergency meetings to get the work to stop.
Now they are waiting for the DEQ to approve the restoration work to be done. Approximately two miles of designated trout stream are affected. The trout streams are threatened because the trees provided the necessary shade to cool the water to the temperature that the trout need.
Russ Yarger, the Barry County Drain Commissioner, is also a member of the Intercounty Drain Board. Yarger attended the meeting, but was not part of the forum and spoke afterward. He said it was the drain board that made the decision to have the Coldwater River trees cleared.
“Basically everything we’ve done is the process we use for normal drain cleaning,” he said.
Yarger said the contractor doing the work along the Coldwater River was paid by the foot and had no incentive to do more, and in fact would make less the more he did.
“Why would he do more than was necessary?” he asked.
Yarger said the drain board was not finished with the project when work was stopped. He feels there is a certain level of bias in the public and media when it comes to this issue. He also is waiting for the DEQ’s response, and said nothing can be done without it.
Patricia Norris of Michigan State University opened the community forum with a talk about water use policy in Michigan. Norris is a professor of natural resource conservation at MSU.
Norris said water use policy is aimed at protecting public waters. There was concern in Michigan and other Great Lakes states that the Great Lakes might be threatened.
“What would happen if the Great Lakes were siphoned off?” Norris said.
The Great Lakes - St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was signed by the surrounding eight Great Lakes states and ratified by Congress in 2008. Norris said the states agreed to the inventory and monitoring of the waters, and to ecosystem protection.
“We had no problem related to large water withdrawals,” she said.
However, she said, Michigan did face other water issues. Mecosta County dealt with Ice Mountain bottling its water and selling it, while the wells went dry downstate.
“How much water is there?” Norris asked. “How can withdrawal of water negatively affect water-dependent ecosystems?
“How much negative effect are we willing to live with?”
Norris said large-quantity water uses include irrigation, public water supply, industrial, mining, bottled water and more. Another question Norris asked was this — If water is a finite resource and part of it is set aside, how do you divide it among competing users?
Norris explained that the Michigan Water Use Law was passed in 2008 to implement the Great Lakes Compact. This means proposed large-quantity withdrawals of water will be screened, and withdrawals that will have a negative effect of water-based ecosystems cannot be approved.
According to Norris, Michigan requires two parties who are competing for the same water to either work it out or enter litigation.
To see a video of Norris’ presentation, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jM84PrT37M&feature=youtu.be
Angela Baranski is a reporter for the Hastings Banner. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Coldwater River Display at Hastings Library
September 16, 2015
The Hastings Public Library has a display and information on the recent occurrences on the Coldwater River. It's worth checking out!
22 January 2014
by Jeff Alexander Bridge Magazine contributor
14 May 2013
by Jeff Alexander
Bridge Magazine contributor
14 May 2013
by Jeff Alexander
Bridge Magazine contributor
Birds of the Watershed