For 14 months, an unknown amount of sludge has been released into The Kalamazoo River. The spillway gates of Morrow Dam were drawn down unexpectedly in 2019 to conduct emergency repairs. The work at Morrow Dam, which was only supposed to take four months, released massive amounts of sediment and left the river ecosystem destroyed.

Swimming Pools of Sludge

Eagle Creek Reusable Energy, owner and operator of the dam, opened the gates in October 2019. The entire reservoir was drained, allowing several decades worth of sediment to be discharged into the Kalamazoo River. The company did not give Michigan EGLE (Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy) timely notice of the drawdown as they are required to.

Steven K. Hamilton, Kellogg Biological Station and Michigan State University researcher, has been keeping a keen eye on the Kalamazoo River since the mid-2000s. He recently shared biological findings to the public of the total amount of sediment released from Morrow Dam. Between October 2019 until December 2020 an incredible 369,000 cubic yards of sludge was released into the river. This is equivalent to nearly 37,000 fully loaded dump trucks or 112 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The amount is over three times the 114,000 cubic yards estimate given by AECOM, the consulting company hired by Eagle Creek to assess the damage.

Ryan Baker, co-founder of the Kalamazoo River Alliance and local angler, began to see effects of the sediment flow early last spring. He stated concerns with increased turbidity and the creation of substantial mudflats.

“The deposits are over 12 feet deep in some areas…There are islands of this sediment appearing downstream from the dam with the bulk of it within the immediate ten-mile stretch after Morrow Dam.”

The sediment has been reported in Lake Allegan, 40 miles downstream from the dam.

Show progressive sediment build up on the banks of the Kalamazoo River.
Progressive sludge build-up on one bank. Each photo was taken two months apart from the other. Photo by: Ryan Baker

Permanent Ecological Damage

The sludge is currently smothering fish and wildlife habitat in the Kalamazoo River watershed. Experts are concerned this will lead to an immense loss of fish and other species, especially if dredging efforts aren’t configured soon. “It (sludge) has absolutely obliterated miles of habitat- whether that’s fish, mussels, invertebrates, aquatic insects, wild grasses, and flowers…” states Baker.

The once productive Largemouth, Smallmouth, and Carp fisheries are likely to suffer, especially after this spawning season. The immediate stretch of the Kalamazoo River below Morrow Dam relies on natural reproduction for fish populations. The majority of the historic spawning habitat (the rock and gravel beds) for these fish is now covered in over five feet of mud.

Baker also shared that while floating down the river, he can see fish tumbling with the current. “They’re belly up, barely alive. It makes me wonder how this river will look, five, ten, twenty years from now.” He also discussed the absence of turtle and muskrat sightings, which were plentiful prior to the sludge.

“It is a very serious impact that in some ways has more obvious damage to the river life than the lingering effects of the oil spill…” states Hamilton, the Kellogg Biological Station and  Michigan State University researcher.

Visual representation of the sickly fish on the Kalamazoo River.
Emaciated Bass from the Kalamazoo River. Photo by: Ryan Baker

So What Now?

As of April 20, 2021, Eagle Creek has completed one dredging operation after EGLE agency pressure, which removed 2,100 cubic yards of sludge from an oxbow section of the river near Wenke Park. The company hopes to capture more sludge from upstream once the area is cleared. Most of the sludge has already moved downstream, however. A statement has yet to be released on what will be done with the dewatered sediment.

Skinny late September Bass. Photo by: Ryan Baker

Eagle Creek Renewable Energy is currently undergoing an investigation by the State, leaving concerned community members and conservationists in the dark. Right now, it’s important to keep voicing concerns to Michigan EGLE and the DNR. Eagle Creek must be held promptly accountable. The handling of this situation will set a precedent for the next inevitable incident.

For more information about Morrow Dam, click here.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Baker from Kalamazoo River Alliance. Follow them on Instagram to stay up-to-date.

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