Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Eagle Creek Renewable Energy.
COMSTOCK TWP. — Michigan officials have issued a violation notice to the operators of a hydroelectric dam in Kalamazoo County that has caused sediment buildup in the Kalamazoo River and negatively affected aquatic resources and stream flow.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy issued the notice on July 8 to Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, which operates the Morrow Dam in Comstock Township.
From Oct. 31-Nov. 22, 2019, Eagle Creek lowered water levels on Morrow Lake by 9 feet to make necessary dam repairs. State officials told the company last week they continue to receive complaints from residents about sedimentation downstream from the dam. The lowered lake levels are expected to remain until the repairs are completed by the end of the year, possibly into spring 2021.
Over the past two weeks, state officials have detected elevated turbidity levels in the river at Galesburg and Allegan, while local advocates say the drawdown has had a “devastating” effect on the river.
Officials say the company violated multiple sections of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act because of the resulting “sediment laden water and unnatural turbidity” and the discharge of fill material in the river.
Officials say the company didn’t consult with the state before the drawdown, but rather afterwards “or at best concurrently,” to address concerns over potential adverse environmental effects.
The incident is playing out nearly two months after a dam near Midland failed after days of heavy rainfall and as disputes between the dam owner and state regulators have ensued.
“EGLE understands the emergency nature of the initial drawdown but finds that the timing of the drawdown and the resulting impacts to aquatic resources and stream flow caused avoidable or mitigatable adverse impacts to resources downstream of the dam,” according to the notice.
Jody Smet, Eagle Creek’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said various state and federal agencies were notified of the drawdown a day before it happened. The lowered lake levels are in place longer than anticipated due to the need to replace a dam gate rather than replace it. Eagle Creek subsidiary STS Hydropower, which operates the dam, consulted with agencies in November “regarding impacts of the drawdown,” Smet said in a statement to MiBiz.
“The lake was drawn down slowly, at a rate of 6 inches per 24-hour period, to minimize the resuspension and transport of sediments,” Smet said. “Operators have been on-site daily visually monitoring the conditions. More recently, STS Hydropower contracted erosion and control specialists with Stantec to help us identify active sediment sources within the lake and recommend effective sediment controls. STS Hydropower is proposing to seed and straw mulch select areas within the lake to stabilize exposed lakebed. Additionally, a turbidity curtain will be installed in the lake, upstream of the dam’s spillway gates to allow resuspended sediments to settle out before moving downstream. These additional mitigation measures will be installed no later than the end of July. STS Hydropower will also implement a turbidity monitoring plan moving forward.”
In its July 8 letter, the state ordered a series of immediate and long-term corrective measures, including stabilizing exposed bottomlands areas with native plant species to prevent further sedimentation and continuing to monitor sediment mobilization.
However, the length of the drawdown has state officials concerned.
“One of our biggest concerns is that a four-month project is now expected to take more than a year to accomplish,” said EGLE spokesperson Nick Assendelft. “We’re advocating for restoration of the impoundment as soon as possible.”
Advocates with Friends for a Clean Kalamazoo River say the drawdown has caused serious harm to the health of the river and the species living there.
“The big picture is the environmental issue of the whole thing — this is devastating,” said Jon Lee, who also works as a fishing guide on the Kalamazoo River.
A Western Michigan University biologist told Michigan Radio last month that the amount of sediment that’s flowed into the river is equivalent to a large fish kill by depriving eggs of oxygen.
Lee said the sediment that was released at the dam also contains decades’ worth of contamination.
“Everything over the decades that has been settling in Morrow Pond has been flushing its way downstream,” he said.
Lee, who has been unable to run guided fishing trips because of the sediment buildup, called the state’s violation notice a “huge win.”
“That being said … hopefully it doesn’t take a whole bunch of (delays) to get (remediation) going,” he said. “I’d hate to see it be dragged out then being cited several times for violations.”