The Morrow Dam drawdown is polluting the Kalamazoo River

Jun 30, 2020

Fishing guide Jon Lee with a handful of muck he scooped from the Kalamazoo River near Comstock yesterday.
Credit SEHVILLA MANN

The company that operates Morrow Dam near Comstock faces a state investigation for letting large amounts of sediment wash into the Kalamazoo River, endangering fish habitats and possibly kicking up contaminants, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

The mud is coming from Morrow Lake, a reservoir near Comstock that was lowered last year for repairs on the dam. The problem has unfolded largely out of the public view, not least because the COVID-19 pandemic has kept some people off the river.  But a fisherman and a biologist are working to get the word out.

"What happened?"

Jon Lee doesn’t just fish for a hobby – he’s a professional guide. People come from around the country and even abroad for his tours of the Kalamazoo River. Standing on a levee by Morrow Dam near Comstock, Lee recalls the morning a few weeks ago when he and a client hit the water.

“And ran through some areas fishing, that I fully expected to pull fish from and we didn’t. And as the day went on, it got closer to midday and I took a look at the water and said, ‘oh my gosh, what happened?’”

The river was muddy. That’s a problem for anglers: The fish can’t see the lure. As the month wore on the water only got dirtier.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before in my years working here and being born and raised here, growing up fishing here,” he said.

The mud is tumbling out of the lake behind Morrow Dam. Last fall, dam operator Eagle Creek Renewable Energy drew the lake down to make what it said were urgent repairs. The company told regulators it expected to finish in four months, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).  Now Eagle Creek is far past that deadline. The work’s not done. And sediment’s building up at least as far downriver as the Kalamazoo Nature Center, and “likely” as far as Allegan, says Devin Bloom, a Western Michigan University biologist whose lab researches fish.

“The river isn’t on fire literally, but maybe figuratively it is,” Bloom said.

A fish kill without the chemicals

Bloom says he didn’t know about the silting until Lee wrote about it online. Normally he’s on the river this time of year too, but the pandemic and shutdown changed his plans. Now Bloom and Lee are working together to chart the damage and raise alarms. Bloom says one day of sediment flow wouldn’t do much damage.

“A pulse of sedimentation coming through the river is not a problem. Enormous amounts of it for sustained periods of time is a problem,” he said.

It might lack the drama of oil, but Bloom says silt.

 

“The increased turbidity can make it difficult for plants to photosynthesize because the light can no longer penetrate through the water column,” he added.

And the water is turbid. Bloom said he brought a group of people out the other day, stopping between Comstock and the dam near a pile of sediment. “Asked them how deep they thought the river was in this spot and they said ‘I don’t know, four or five feet, maybe six?’ ‘And I said, put your paddle down there, in a canoe and it was about two feet deep.’”

The standout impacts are to fishes and shellfish like mussels. Bloom says fish lay eggs in the rocks and sand on the river bottom. When sediment covers the rock, “it fills it in. It’s like taking concrete and pouring it in over the top of it and letting it harden up, and then those eggs are no longer able to get the oxygen they need.”

The silt smothers the eggs. It’s a fish kill without the chemicals.

“Both game fishes that you might be out here fishing for like smallmouth bass but also, the forage for fish, like lots of minnows and chubs are spawning in this spot right here actually,” Bloom said. The silt also buries and kills mussels.

A long silence from Eagle Creek

Bloom says dam owner Eagle Creek appears to have done little to nothing to stop sediment from pouring into the river. The company declined an interview with WMUK. In a recent statement, Eagle Creek said it planned the drawdown with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.  But EGLE says Eagle Creek did not follow its rules. Kyle Alexander is with the Water Resources Unit in the Kalamazoo office. He says the agency learned of the drawdown the day after it started.

“We sent a formal letter to them asking for additional information, looking into the necessity of the drawdown and asking that Eagle Creek submit to us information that would better explain how they would mitigate or plan for avoiding potential environmental impacts,” he said.

Alexander said when Eagle Creek wrote back, it appeared to believe that EGLE lacked authority over the drawdown. EGLE said it did have authority. Alexander said the company then went silent until recently, when it did meet with the state.

Alexander says Eagle Creek needs to quantify the sediment in the river, test for contaminants and find ways to reduce the impact of the silt.

“And then looking into the future, submitting to us a plan to stabilize the sediment that’s onsite, stop any additional discharges from taking place and also putting to place some more formal monitoring to make sure those measures are working,” he said.

Alexander says the recent meeting with Eagle Creek seemed promising. Still, the company’s breaking the rules.

“We can safely conclude that there are some active ongoing violations but we’re going to further look into that in the coming days and weeks,” he said.

At the levee, fishing guide Jon Lee said yes, he’s losing business over the silting. But he says he’s more worried about the damage to the river. Lee says he wants to see Eagle Creek held accountable for the harm it’s caused. And he wants people to know what’s going on. WOOD-TV featured him in recent a story about the pollution.

“Limited access and a history of abuse and quite frankly a bad reputation have kind of left the Kalamazoo River, the middle section here off the map for a lot of people. And I believe it’s time we start treating this place for what it is, and that’s a resource,” he said.

Eagle Creek told EGLE that it plans to raise the water on Morrow Lake in the fall. But Alexander says the state will likely ask the company to wait.  He says drawing the water up in the fall could kill amphibians and reptiles that hibernate in the mud.