Work at Otsego dam is small step for river

Michigan Department of Natural Resources contractors have started work on a project to eventually remove the Otsego Township Dam.

Emphasis on the eventually, though, as even when the state finishes up its current project, the dam—on the river west of Pine Creek along River Road near the Bittersweet Ski Area—won’t be able to come out yet.

DNR dam manager Mark Mill said, “We’re not at the removal stage yet, but we’re at pulling out the old powerhouse section and putting in the temporary dam there.”

The temporary dam will be a water control structure, both shoring up the failing  state-owned dam and allowing the DNR to control the water level in the impoundment which backs up behind it.

“When the impoundment is cleaned up, then we can dewater the impoundment and restore the river to its natural flow, we can pull the sheet pile out,” Mill said.

That “when” is there because the DNR must wait until the Environmental Protection Agency finishes negotiating with potentially responsible parties—companies it says are responsible or own the liability of companies that were responsible for the PCB contamination in the river—to agree on a settlement amount and cleanup plan. All the dam impoundments on this stretch of the river have PCB contamination in sediments, so the EPA demands cleanup before dams can come out.

“We can’t wait on them,” Mills said. “The deterioration just continues to accelerate.”

The state already spent money to strengthen a dam it doesn’t want to exist once, when it reinforced it with sheet pile to stop water that was starting to work its way around the spillway through the earth dam. The dam dates from the early 1900s and hasn’t been used to generate hydroelectric power for more than a half century.

The project currently ongoing will put in sheet pile  on both sides of the dam and then remove the former powerhouse area. The water control structure will go there, Mills said, and eventually it will be where the river’s channel will be once the project is done and the dam is gone.

“We’ll break the concrete spillway up and bury it with clean fill,” Mills said.

Once the water control structure is in, he said, the bulk of the cost of the dam removal—estimated at over $3 million—would be done.

Then, once the cleanup under the EPA’s Superfund process is done, Mills estimated it would cost $250,000 to $300,000 to demolish the dam.

“That’ll be three to five years before it’s done,” he said.

The dam removal project is funded by several sources, Mills said, including $500,000 from the DNR wildlife division, two fisheries grants of $75,000 and $125,000 and $2.6 to 3 million from the settlement the DNR reached with Enbridge Energy after its pipeline spilled oil into the river. The money was earmarked for environmental cleanup of the Kalamazoo River.

Mills said, “A lot of the cost of the project is in material, $1 to $2 million in materials, so with that said we can pull those out and reuse on another project.

“We should be able to reuse all that sheet pile. The riprap, the rocks we use to stabilize things, we’ll have to have and we’ll be able to reuse.”

When that material is reused, it will likely be at either the state-owned Trowbridge Dam, near 26th Street southeast of Allegan, or the Otsego City Dam, which the city of Otsego owns.

On the Trowbridge Dam, the DNR will move soon for engineering work to be done.

“We need to figure out what options we have and what alternatives are available to us,” Mills said. “We’ll have to do something, I’m sure, before the EPA is ready to do a remediation there.”

He predicted the project at the city dam, which is in better condition than either of the other two, would be a lot harder to accomplish.

“The city dam will be a hairier beast while this one is a simpler project with a dam that is failing,” Mill said.

The state put money into engineering for the city dam project under Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant that paid for 80 percent and DNR paid 20 percent.

Mills said it was unfortunate the city had ended up with ownership.

“We accepted responsibility and ownership,” he said. “The city of Otsego, it was just dumped on them.

“All the people who used it jumped back with hands in the air and said, ‘No it’s not ours.’”

Otsego, city manager Thad Beard said, is very much interested in removing its dam.

“We’ve got a state permit for our work, but it’s meaningless until we get word from the EPA that they have an agreement,” Beard said, while mentioning the city and other river stakeholders had had a good meeting with the agency in January. “We communicated our great desire to see everything happen expediently.”

He said he understood the realities of the project.

“The state dam leapfrogged in front of us,” Beard said. “We’re geographically next, but because theirs failed, they’re going to be next.”

Other fronts

The city isn’t ready to sit, however, and wait. For one, it has been discussing the river with its fellows from Allegan and Plainwell, and trying to use their voices together to get more action from the higher authorities.

“It seems our voices are heard better as a group than they are individually,” Beard said.

Otsego is also helping to push, with its partner cities, the idea of making the river a recreational draw. Ideas include fish ladders around dams and trails that follow the river and link the three cities.

“We’re hoping to have the dams removed ultimately, but we want to have it easier to use the river for recreation, both for fishing and for kayaking,” Beard said.

In that vein, Plainwell took the lead in approaching the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and getting an applied policy seminar group to create a plan called “Fishing for the Future: Re-imagining the Kalamazoo River to create regional economic development strategies for the City of Plainwell and Allegan County.”

The report’s executive summary said it appeared it would be beneficial to move ahead as quickly as possible to restore the river for use by migratory fish, through building fish ladders or bypasses around the dams, rather than waiting on dam removal, given political realities.

River corridor

Plainwell city manager Erik Wilson said the city is also taking the next step and seeking a grant from the Delano Foundation to begin a process of creating a river corridor plan for the affected parts of the county.

“There’s been some info on the Kalamazoo River over the years,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, we’d like to see a river corridor plan the encompasses Allegan County.

“There are varying degrees of planning going on in the county involving the river and a process that could consolidate all that into a river corridor plan would benefit it all.”

He cautioned that it would not be a top-down process of seeking to force any community to do things a certain way.

“The plan isn’t to tell any municipality what it should be,” Wilson said. “The process would be for the municipality and the residents to come in and say what they want their stretches of river would be like.”

Plainwell, he said, wants to really use its riverfront as a draw and wants to extend its’ riverwalk west, hopefully eventually to Otsego, while other areas outside cities might prefer no development or something different.

“State and federal agencies will be spending millions on this river, we think having a plan is a proactive step in getting our voices heard in how we want to see the river develop,” Wilson said.

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