Dams in Michigan have fared poorly this year. Back in May, two dams on the Tittabawassee River failed, threatening hundreds of local residents. Quite reasonably, these failures grasped media, political attention, and public anxiety. Unfortunately, throughout this spring, Michigan authorities neglected a different Michigan dam, resulting in an environmental disaster of its own.

The Kalamazoo River flows 130 miles throughout southern Michigan and empties into Lake Michigan. Once heavily polluted from decades of industrial activities, the Kalamazoo water quality has shown great improvements. Smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and carp are now productive fisheries, offering anglers great recreational opportunities on the Kalamazoo River.

Today, however, fishing on the Kalamazoo is close to impossible and the future of the river is in question. Last fall, Morrow Dam, privately owned and operated by Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, needed urgent repairs. So, Eagle Creek began drawing down the water levels above the dam (Morrow Reservoir). Long story short, the drawdown operation was botched from the onset, and wildlife and vegetation on the Kalamazoo are feeling the harmful effects. And months past the original deadline, Eagle Creek’s harmful work continues.

Jon Lee, a local fishing guide, said “a private company utilizing a public resource for profit with zero accountability is unacceptable.”

The drawdown lacked the necessary oversight, which resulted in the current issue: heavy sedimentation. Large volumes of sediment–including possible remnants of a 2010 oil spill, PCBs, and heavy metals–previously trapped above the dam were released during the drawdown. Ideally, the sediment issue would have been addressed from the get-go with proper mitigation measures. That did not happen.

Now, Lee is worried about the long-term health of the river and its fisheries– not to mention his professional guiding season. The massive sedimentation occurring is altering the river’s structure and choking out juvenile fish and eggs, shellfish, and vegetation. The volume of sediment now moving through the Kalamazoo can also contribute to nutrient pollution, which can lead to harmful algal blooms.

“The high sediment load for a prolonged period of time is a serious threat to the middle reach of the Kalamazoo River. Sedimentation is known to negatively impact fish and invertebrate habitat quality, especially bottom dwelling species,” said local biologist, Devin Bloom.

Michigan authorities have been working to fix the sediment problem, but tangible progress will not be achieved until December at the earliest, according to Lee.

Pictures courtesy of Jon Lee @Kalamazoo_river_guide. Check out his page for Kalamazoo River updates!


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