U.S. Congressman Fred Upton tossed aside a “closed” sign at a Kalamazoo River access site in Otsego after cutting a ribbon with DNR deputy director Bill O’Neil to reopen the river to the public. (Photo by Virginia Ransbottom)

Kalamazoo River reopens at cleanup site near Otsego

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

A ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday, Aug. 30, at the Otsego Township Dam impoundment area marked the completion of a two-year cleanup effort and the reopening of the Kalamazoo River to the public.

Representatives from the Michigan departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality, the EPA, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, state Rep. Mary Whiteford and several area neighbors gathered at the site to open the gates and take the first paddle down the natural course of the river, diverted more than a century ago when the dam was built.

Lois Heuchert, owner of Plainwell Kayak Company, supplied the kayaks and a sign that said “Welcome Back.”

Mark Mills, DNR wildlife field operations manager said the river and state-managed properties along its banks are open to the public for access and outdoor activities. The site has been closed since 2016 to ensure safe operations during the cleanup, dam removal and to allow plants and grass to get established.

Upton and DNR deputy director Bill O’Neil cut the ribbon. Upton tossed the “Closed” sign aside and the red warning gate was opened.

Upton said just the week before, along with help from a lot of people, including the DNR, $180,000 was spent with Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant money for the Allegan County Conservation to implement an incentive program for best practices to reduce sedimentation in the Gun River watershed.

“We’ve all worked together as we think about contaminated areas around the country,” he said. “Superfund has been a big help along with brownfield legislation, which I’ve helped sponsor year after year constructing bipartisan amendments.

“But this is the day we really look forward to—a day we can actually open this back up to where we all want it to be.”

The river can be accessed at two public parking lots: Jefferson Road west of Otsego at the Pine Creek impoundment, and at the former dam location near Fox Mountain Drive, east of Bittersweet Ski Area on River Road.

Heuchert recommends the Fox Mountain launch for families who want to bypass a choppy area just downriver of the former dam.

That’s an area where the valley narrows with underwater boulders and a little bit of white water. With a stronger current, it could be a hazard for beginners. Thursday, with the water level down slightly, kayakers got splashed and had a blast.

“It’s a natural geological formation,” said Mills.

Plainwell Kayak Company is now offering the two-hour float down to the Trowbridge Dam as one of the company’s rental excursions.

The Otsego Township Dam cleanup site is a 1.7-mile stretch of a larger 80-mile cleanup in Allegan County on the Allied Paper/Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River Superfund site. The $33-$35 million project completed included the removal of the Otsego Township Dam, removal of PCB-contaminated sediments and soils from the river channel and banks, and restoration of the banks with native vegetation.

Caused from the dam, the state purchased the flooded banks of the river back in the 1960s. After taking out the dam, those banks are now above ground again and accessible to the public.

Mills said the effort is paying off, with fish and wildlife quickly recolonizing—as well as outdoor recreation enthusiasts as of Thursday.

The Trowbridge Dam removal is the next piece of the puzzle for contamination cleanup and restoring the natural flow of the water. Upriver of the dam, which is failing, the current slows dramatically.

Otsego resident Sheri Vandenbosh who lives around the bend from the launch was elated to be one of the first people back on the river.

“It was so dirty and they cleaned it up so much, it’s just beautiful,” she said.

For more information about recreation opportunities or safety restrictions at this site, contact the DNR Customer Service Center in Plainwell at (269) 685-6851.

Virginia Ransbottom can be contacted at vransbottom@allegannews.com or at (269) 673-5534.

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