KALAMAZOO, Mich. —
You’d likely miss it if you weren’t looking for it in the Kalamazoo River.
Piles of slimy, sludgy mess are clogging up the river, smothering fish and wildlife habitats, and creating a dangerous problem for possibly decades to come.
“It’s all that muck, it’s that stuff you get stuck in and you lose a boot,” says Ryan Baker, a longtime river enthusiast who also volunteers with the Kalamazoo River Alliance. “When there’s 14-feet, 10-feet, however much feet of sediment over these spawning grounds, it’s going to be pretty bad for years and years to come.”
Baker stands on the deck of a shallow power boat, clutching a handful of the dark, muddy dirt.
“This…” he says, “…this shouldn’t be here, this should be all water right here.”
He grabs a skinny PVC pipe laying on the boat’s deck and drives it deep into the muck.
It disappears in seconds.
“It’s a ten-foot pole,” Baker notes. “It’ll go down farther I just don’t want to stick my hand in the muck.”
“It should be 14-feet of water,” he adds, after a pause.
And Ryan – as do other locals and some large state agencies – know where all the sediment came from.
“It’s all sediment from Morrow Lake that’s come down,” said Baker.
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In October 2019, Morrow Dam began a drawdown at their facility, gushing water from the Morrow Lake reservoir into the Kalamazoo River for what they said were necessary repairs to both of their spill gates.
They notified the state the drawdown would be partial, and last only four months.
Baker says the water kept spilling into the Kalamazoo River throughout the entirety of 2019.
“Someone in those positions who deals with this on a daily basis should’ve known that this was a possibility, but nothing was done until it was too late,” said Baker. “The damage has been done. The dam owners can tell us whatever reason they want. It’s down here now it doesn’t matter what the reason was.”
In a statement to FOX17, Eagle Creek Renewable Energy owners of Morrow Power Station, said:
“Safety and environmental stewardship are the top priorities for everyone at Morrow Dam. We recognize and take seriously concerns about sediment deposits downstream of Morrow Dam. We are working closely with state agencies to investigate and take the appropriate steps to manage the issue."
Members of STS Hydropower, which owns the Morrow Dam itself, noted they have been out on the lake to survey the damage, but only after the problem was present.
Eagle Creek noted they had been in touch with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but did not say which state agencies had been consulted about the initial drawdown. In their own statement to FOX17 News, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), said Eagle Creek had not contacted them before beginning their initial drawdown, nor was their communication sufficient while continuing it into 2020, saying in their statement:
"EGLE does not believe ECR notified our department in a timely manner or provided necessary information before starting the drawdown."
EGLE noted that the dam would’ve been required to contact their agency, as well as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources before and during any drawdown of the reservoir. In their statement, they also included:
"We are working through the enforcement/settlement agreement process with Eagle Creek and STS Hydropower."
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Back downriver from the rush of the dam, Baker muses on a solution to the overwhelming problem.
“The only good option we see, obviously, is to dredge the stuff,” he said. “It’s going to be millions of dollars, which, it is what it is.”
Eagle Creek has committed to a single dredging project in an oxbow about two miles downriver from the dam itself. The project is estimated to dredge roughly 4,000 cubic yards of sediment out of the river, a drop in the bucket, Baker says.
“It’s 4-5 dump trucks, every single hour, 24-hours a day, for an entire year essentially dumping sediment into the river,” says Baker, categorizing the estimates of sediment that quickly and furiously invaded the riverbed.
Some estimates put the amount as high as 450,000 cubic yards of sediment, according to numbers EGLE provided to FOX17. One Michigan State University professor, in his own independent report, said the amount was enough to fill the volume of 112 Olympic-sized swimming pools to the brim, and said even that was conservative.
“It’s like an iceberg, you’re only seeing that top little bit that’s exposed,” said Baker. “It’s going to have to work its way naturally out of the system but it doesn’t mean the dam owners should be let off the hook.”
But where does it go?
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“As far as an ecological disaster goes concerning the wildlife this is on par with the BP oil spill,” said Baker.
The decimation of what he thinks are at least two generations of some fish species, higher-lying habitats for amphibious animals, and damage to underwater plants by cutting off their light, is the main worry.
But it’s also a human problem too.
“Think about it like this,” says Baker, “you’ve got a bathtub, right? And it’s filled almost up to the brim with water. Well then you take a couple 5-gallon buckets of mud and you throw it in, boom, it overflows. It’s the same situation that we have in the river.”
Baker says when the area’s first high-water event happens this season, flooding is inevitable. It spells danger or even death for homes nearby and for homeless encampments dotting the riverbank. Downtown areas prone to flooding that the city has spent millions to protect, will once again be at risk.
It’s a Kalamazoo problem today, but Baker says in a matter of time, it’ll be a Plainwell, Allegan and Otsego problem as the sediment rushes downriver, swirling in the water as it goes like what Baker compared to an ominous cappuccino.
Businesses whose lifeblood is the river, waterfront homes, river habitats – are all at risk well beyond Kalamazoo.
“The Kalamazoo River for the next 30 miles, if nothing is done to clean this stuff up, is going to be dealing with the ramifications of this sediment for years. I mean years.”