Posts Tagged ‘Dams’

Top ten things I am thankful for . . .

As we head in to Thanksgiving I am reflecting on the many things that I am grateful for.  I am lucky that I find so much to be grateful for in my work.  Just in the past few months, I have a dozen or so things that come to mind:

Pinckney Recreation Area by John Lloyd.

Pinckney Recreation Area by John Lloyd.

  1. The excitement of our partners and donors to the spotting of an osprey on a platform we installed on the river.
  2. Stopping a new wastewater treatment plant from discharging more phosphorus and nitrogen in to the Middle Huron.
  3. The finalization of a new and lower 1,4 Dioxane standard for the drinking water in Michigan that will result in additional clean-up.
  4. My memories of Suds on the River, where over 400 of our community gathered to support HRWC and celebrate clean water.
  5. Achieving a growing number of municipalities to ban cancer-causing pavement sealants with 11 in the watershed and 14 total in the state.
  6. Quantifying the annual economic activity of the river at over $78.6 million!
  7. The joy of kids in the pictures and cards we receive from hundreds of them who participate in our summer snorkeling, rain garden, paddle trips, school field trips, and creek walking programs.
  8. The new commitment of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners to fund comprehensive lake monitoring in 100 of the 562 lakes in the county.
  9. After the removal of the Mill pond dam in Dexter, the increasing number of macroinvertebrates and brown trout enjoying a cleaner and faster moving creek, along with the increasing number of people discovering and enjoying the new trails, outdoor features and restaurants near the creek.
  10. You! In my work I interact with bright, passionate, and fun partners, staff, board, and volunteers. I am inspired by your commitment to our river and your love of everything Huron River.

News to Us


The Red Swamp Crayfish is invading Michigan water bodies. Credit:

This edition of News to Us highlights both good and bad news on local algal blooms as well as two stories on non-native species making headlines – one of concern, the other of little concern. News at the federal level is also mixed. Read about the implications of the proposed Clean Water Rule repeal and some hopeful news on the federal allocation of funding supporting Great Lakes restoration.

Improving Water Quality In Ypsilanti Township’s Ford Lake
After decades of trouble with algal blooms in Ford Lake, an impoundment on the Huron River in Ypsilanti Township, researchers and township staff found a solution. Changing operations of the Ford Lake Dam has kept algal blooms at bay in most years and the water quality of the lake is improving.

Potentially toxic algae found in two Oakland County lakes
Two lakes, including Pontiac Lake in the Huron River watershed, are experiencing significant algal blooms this month. It is suspected that the blooms may contain toxic algae. Oakland County health officials recommend avoiding contact with the water at this time and keeping pets out as well. The article has a list of recommended precautions.

Tiny jellyfish reported in Lake Erie
Jellyfish in Michigan? Headlines have been circulating on the invasion of this non-native species recently because of new sightings in Lake Erie and St. Clair. And while it is true that this is a non-native species, it has been in Great Lakes waterways for some time now and has not reached nuisance levels. Also worthy of note is that the tentacles of this jellyfish are too small to sting humans, so swim away. For more on freshwater jellyfish see Huron River Report, Spring 2008.

Tiny lobsters of doom: Why this invasive crayfish is bad news
In other non-native species news, the red swamp crayfish has been confirmed in Michigan. This species has a lot of potential to become invasive and cause disruption to the native ecosystem. Their deep burrowing capacity is known to cause erosion, they out-compete native crayfish for food, and prey on small fish and fish eggs. The DNR is asking people to report potential sightings of this invader.

Trump plans to roll back environmental rule everyone agrees on
This opinion piece is written by former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Ken Kopocis, formerly of EPA’s Office of Water. The article describes what is at stake with the Trump Administrations proposed roll back of the Clean Water Rule. There has bipartisan demand for clarity on the 1972 Clean Water Act which the rule provides. Much work has been done to establish the rule which provides clear criteria for what waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. To provide your remarks on the proposed repeal, see our earlier blog On the chopping block: clean water.  Comment period closes September 27th.

House appropriators approve $300 Million for Great Lakes; reject amendment on Clean Water Rule
Some good news coming out of the federal government on the environment front. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, originally scheduled to be zeroed out in the 2018 budget, has been approved at $300 million by U.S. House appropriators. The funding still has to make it through the Senate and White House before final approval.

News to Us


Mulching fall leaves is a river friendly practice. Photo credit: Dean Hochman via Flickr Creative Commons license.

HRWC’s commitment to compiling and sharing noteworthy water-related news continues. This month’s News to Us covers the recent listing of Lake Erie as impaired waters, problems associated with low density development, a great river recovery story and some tips on good river “housekeeping” for autumn leaves.


Conservation Groups Applaud Michigan’s Inclusion of Lake Erie in Impaired Waters Report
Last week the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality listed western Lake Erie as impaired waters under the Clean Water Act. Environmental groups have been advocating for this for some time now as it will allow for further research, funding and action to address the nutrient pollution that leads to toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie. This is very good news for this Great Lake. Many are pushing for Ohio to follow suit.

Is the Infrastructure ‘Time Bomb’ Beginning to Blow?
It may not be immediately obvious, but low density development—what we see in suburban and rural areas where homes are built on large lots far from city centers—is not good for waters and watersheds. Here at HRWC we prefer high density development in a few areas as opposed to low density development everywhere. This article highlights one of the problems associated with sprawling development. “Low density housing cannot pay the bills.”  The tax revenue is too low to cover the cost of infrastructure maintenance like roads, sewer and water necessary to serve these developments. When this infrastructure fails, the environment suffers. Check out our Smart Growth publications to learn more.

Taking Down Dams and Letting the Fish Flow
Last issue we shared an article about the human safety benefits of dam removal. This heartening story shows how quickly an ecosystem can rebound after dam removals. Three dams were removed on the Penobscot River in Maine in 2012 and 2013. Just three years later, huge numbers of native migratory fish have resumed their migration up the river—a trip they have not been able to make for nearly 200 years!

Leave The Leaves–Putting Organic Waste To Work
Leaves and grass that make their way into waterways add excess nutrients and use up valuable oxygen as they decompose. Local Master Composter Nancy Stone gives advice on how to utilize fall yard waste to maximize the benefits of fallen leaves. Leaves can be used in your yard to improve your soil and reduce weed growth. Nancy recommends mowing the leaves into your lawn. Mulching leaves can also reduce the greenhouse gas methane. Give this interview a listen as you are getting ready to clean up fall leaves. For more tips on river friendly home care visit our pollution prevention page.

News to Us

pointe-moullieIn news of interest to us here at HRWC, we’ve seen more coastal wetlands now under protection near the mouth of the Huron River and a new business is in town in the lower reaches of the river as well. American Rivers lays out a path for removal of dams to reduce loss of life from dam failures. And two articles take a look at the two sides of climate change, how it is impacting us now (or in this case, how it is impacting birds) and what we, as a global community, are doing to solve the problem.

Two donate property to Detroit River wildlife refuge
A 43 acre complex of wetland, woodland and some agricultural land has been added to a complex of sites that creates the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. This parcel sits at the outlet of the Huron River near the Point Mouillee State Game Area where the Huron empties into Lake Erie. This refuge is home to many resident and migratory birds and helps clean inland waters heading into our Great Lakes.

How our unseasonably warm fall is affecting migratory birds
Weather pattern affect species differently, some more than others. Experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology discuss how our warm fall temperatures impact bird migration. Those most likely to be impacted are species that rely more heavily on temperature cues.  Others rely more on waning daylight to cue migration.

Removing Dams Can Save Lives
Many dams in the US were built decades ago and are now persisting beyond their lifespan. This article highlights the importance of removing or repairing aging dams to reduce risks to people.  Several major storms this year resulted in multiple dam failures in areas affected. American Rivers goes on to articulate a solution to the problem including modifying dam safety program requirements and making more federal funding available.

The past two weeks are a perfect illustration of what “solving” climate change will look like
This article shares some hopeful news that indicates on a growing number of fronts, countries are acting on climate change. Within the last few weeks, you may have run across these headlines. Canada established a nationwide carbon tax. While the Paris Climate Agreement was forged in 2015, it was not ratified until this month and thankfully, it included the US and China who were late to sign the deal. And finally, a global deal was established to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a really potent greenhouse gas used for cooling. Keep up the good work people of the world!

New coffee, tea, specialty gift shop opens in Flat Rock
One of the Huron River Trail Towns has a new business ready to serve you.  If you are paddling, fishing, picnicking or otherwise enjoying the river near Flat Rock, stop by the Blue Heron Trading Company and say hello. Its businesses like this that keep our trail towns vibrant, welcoming places to take a break from the river and refuel.

News to Us

This edition of News to Us shares local news on recovering Osprey populations, increasing entrance fees in our metroparks system and an examination of Livingston County drinking water issues.  At the state level, Michigan is considering banning of plastic microbeads. And in national news, aging dams are making headlines again.

Osprey population booms in Southeast Michigan Osprey populations are rebounding in the Huron River watershed. The Huron River Watershed Council helped install two new platforms for nesting sites in the river. Learn about the bird and its recovery in this article.  See more on HRWC’s role in this mini-documentary.

Microbeads and the Great Lakes We have shared stories about the issue of plastic microbeads from bath and beauty products in previous editions of News to Us.  These beads end up in our lakes and rivers as they are not captured in the wastewater treatment process. Now, the Michigan legislature is considering a ban. Michigan is the last remaining Great Lakes state without a ban.  Here’s hoping we can join the rest of the region in protecting our lakes and streams from this pollutant.

Huron-Clinton parks plan: Higher fees, bigger offices Huron Clinton Metroparks are a significant landholder in the Huron River watershed, much of it along the river itself.  The parks are wonderful amenities for our residents and play a role in protecting water quality and freshwater ecosystems. The park system is considering raising rates for entrance fees.  This article shares more.

Aging And Underfunded: America’s Dam Safety Problem, In 4 Charts  America’s dams are getting old. The nation received a D grade in a recent assessment (Michigan received a D as well). On a day to day basis, this may not be a big deal. But the flooding that occurred in South Carolina last month illustrates why we must be proactive about this issue.  During those floods, more than 20 dams collapsed, dramatically increasing the impact of already damaging rainfall.  Funding is a challenge but preventing a collapse is almost always less expensive than recovering from one.

Safe to drink? Livingston faces own water issues In response to the Flint drinking water crisis, one reporter decided to look into the potential for this kind of disaster in Livingston County.  While the Flint scenario is not a likely one, the article does share the myriad issues that can occur with drinking water and how water suppliers, the county and residents are helping to ensure safe drinking water for everyone.

Seminar answers critical questions for dam owners

On a crisp Thursday morning last week, as the sun rose over the pond formed by Argo Dam in Ann Arbor, 25 owners and operators of small dams within the Huron River watershed gathered to discuss their management and responsibilities for the dams.

Participants at dam workshop

Laura Rubin leads discussion with presenters at the Resources for Small Dam Owners Seminar

Here are some of the highlights:

Elizabeth Riggs provided background information and statistics about dams in the watershed, in Michigan and around the nation. The majority of dams in the watershed are more than 40 years old, which presents a significant maintenance issue across the watershed as these dams may be approaching (or passed!) their design life. Elizabeth also discussed the growing national trend of dam removal. She indicated that removal can be 3 to 5 times less expensive than dam reconstruction, and funding is available for removal, but not reconstruction.

Map of inventoried dams in the Huron River watershed

More than 100 dams on the Huron River system

Luke Trumble, environmental engineer with the Hydrologic Studies and Dam Safety Unit of MDEQ, spoke to the group about the state’s regulation of dams and how it impacts dam owners. He emphasized liabilities associated with dams and the importance of inspection for dam safety. He indicated that owners of high-hazard dams are about 95% compliant with inspection and maintenance regulations. MDEQ inspects state-owned and municipally-owned dams upon request. Private owners must hire private, licensed engineers.

Shawn Middleton, engineer with the Spicer Group, presented on dam inspection and maintenance considerations and the economics of dam management. He highlighted observable evidence of dam deterioration, what to do about it, and how to quantify and minimize cost. One interesting point of discussion was that most of the older dams were not designed for the flood sizes that can be expected in the near future. For example, storms have caused dam failure in western parts of the state in recent years.

Following the presentations, Laura Rubin facilitated a discussion with the attendees and speakers on topics such as restoring river systems following a long period as a dammed system; dam ownership and transfer; and hydropower cost vs. revenue. Cost/benefit analysis in Michigan is showing that converting to hydropower is a liability rather than a benefit financially.

Leading up to the seminar, HRWC has worked to inventory the dams in the watershed and collect information about the structures, their ponds, owners and management. Dam owners and operators were surveyed to update information in the dam database. During this process, more dams, many which are too small to be regulated by the state, were discovered.  The large dam operators on the river mainstem recently formed an informal association to establish communication and share information. The smaller dam owners were invited to last Thursday’s seminar.

Presentations and Links of Interest are now available at

The State of Climate Change Adaptation in the Great Lakes Region

Climate adaptation is any action taken that reduces the vulnerability of natural communities and the built environment to the impacts of climate change.  For example, if we are going to get larger storms, what do we need to do to our stormwater practices and infrastructure to reduce the chances of flooding or pipe or dam failure?  If warmer air temperatures mean we are more susceptible to a new forest pest or pathogen, what do we do to reduce tree loss?  These are some of the questions we are considering, along with water resource professionals from throughout the watershed, in our Making Climate Resilient Communities project.

We are not alone in our efforts to adapt to changes in climate.  There are communities, agencies and organizations throughout the Great Lakes Region that are engaged in efforts to determine courses of action in response to climate change.  Those of us who are working in this arena are pioneering a new field and can serve as a resource to others.

Recently, EcoAdapt, an organization focused on facilitating climate adaptation, released a report: The State of Climate Change Adaptation in the Great Lakes Region. The report provides an overview of climate change in the region, shares the results of a survey to water resource professionals capturing adaptation activities and reflects on common challenges and opportunities to push the needle forward on climate adaptation.

HRWC’s Climate Resilient Communities and Saving Water Saves Energy projects stand proudly among the 57 case studies highlighted in the report (pg 94).  You will also find other examples from our watershed including the efforts of the City of Ann Arbor (pg 103) and the Great Lakes Adaptation Assessment for Cities project that has selected Ann Arbor as one of it’s assessment cities (pg 142).  This report, along with many other adaptation resources can be found on CAKE (Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange) website.

Court-Ordered Lake Levels Add to Low Flow Woes

We glimpse the future under a changed climate

Weeks of air temperatures above 90 degrees F have lots of people talking about extreme weather and the role of climate change. Such extreme heat yields myriad human and environmental effects.  A previously unexplored effect is the stress that court-established water levels on lakes will have on the Huron River system under drought conditions that are projected by climate scientists to occur with greater frequency over the next 30-50 years.

This structure increases or decreases the rate at which water leaves a lake.

State laws at odds

Michigan law prohibits reduced river flows under Section 324.301 of the 1994 Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act. The section states that diminishing an inland lake or stream is prohibited without a permit.  “Diminish” means to reduce flows to a creek, as happens when gates of a lake level control structure are closed.

However, read a bit further and you’ll see that Michigan law allows for reduced river flow under Section 324.307.  Under this law, lake residents are allowed to obtain a regulated lake level by building a lake-level control structure that maintains a lake’s water level while reducing flow to downstream lakes and rivers.  Lake residents are motivated  to pursue lake levels to make it easier to boat, recreate in the lake, and build docks that they can reliably use despite changes in weather conditions. Many lakes in the watershed, including in-line lakes that are impoundments of the Huron River, have court-ordered lake levels.

Lake residents are able to obtain these designations through a process with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  Once a lake level is set by a judge, then the county government (often the Drain or Water Resources Commissioner) is responsible for altering the outflow of the water from these lakes via structures so that the the lake is able to maintain a constant depth. Dams are one type of structure used to control flows. Other structures like the one pictured above also are present in the watershed.

Typically, though not always, the DEQ gives section 307 precedence over section 301, meaning that permitted lake-control structures are allowed to diminish the downstream lake or stream in order to maintain their lake levels.

Keeping a lake level in drought conditions

Maintaining a court-ordered lake level may go unnoticed during periods of normal or wet weather. But this manipulation of a natural system has the potential to stress the ecology of the downstream river during drought periods. Since the county is obligated to maintain a certain water level it is possible that they would need to “hoard” incoming water and only allow reduced flow —  or even no flow — downstream.  The graphics below show a simple input and output system to illustrate the issue.

Under normal conditions, the amount of water entering a level-controlled lake will approximately equal the amount of water leaving the lake.

Under typical flow conditions, the amount of water entering a lake will equal the amount of water leaving the lake, plus any additions from rain, and minus any water lost through evaporation.  Under drought conditions, the amount of water entering the lake is already reduced from low stream flows, no additional input is provided from rain, and the amount of evaporation can be significantly high.  As a result, it is possible that the county would have to close the gates altogether to maintain the lake’s court-ordered water level, and no water or very reduced flows will reach downstream to keep the fish alive or provide water to the next lake or river section downstream.

The drought situation– in order to maintain the lake level, water is held back in the impoundment.

How can the situation be improved?

For the waterfront resident

Given the current hot and dry conditions in southeastern Michigan, waterfront residents likely are seeing reduced water flow especially if living downstream of a lake with a court-mandated lake level. Understandably, this imbalance of “water power” may feel unfair and residents could be looking for a fast and easy solution to secure more water for their section of the river or lake. Such a solution doesn’t exist. Aggrieved residents have sought justice through our legal system. Typically, these cases are eventually dropped since droughts end and rain, and consequently higher water flow, mute the problem.

Yet, droughts are predicted to become more common and more severe over the next several decades, and we may see a resurgence of court cases.

A measure of relief may be found in the operation of the structures. Some lakes have an ungated pipe or dam bypass that drains downstream, so that some amount of water is always flowing downstream, even when the dam’s gates are completely closed. However, such a bypass is not a requirement in obtaining the establishing a legal lake level.  Building this in a requirement would be an important and wonderful safeguard to ensure that some level of water is always going downstream.

And for the river

The DEQ has the responsibility to examine the problem with stream flow as it relates to drought and mandated lake levels. In particular, giving the priority of maintaining lake levels over allowing for run-of-the-river flows is dangerous for the survival of downstream ecosystems when facing drought situations.

After speaking with DEQ staff, I am happy to report that the issue is on their radar and under consideration.  HRWC will keep an eye on this complex issue at the state level, and work with local partners to find workable solutions to this increasingly urgent problem.

Real-Time Stream Flow and Weather Weirdness

These severe flow fluctuations kill a river ecosystem

With the huge rain last week and the flood warnings, I visited the U.S. Geologic Survey’s (USGS) real-time stream flow gages on the river to see how the river reacted .  In the Huron, we have 4 permanent USGS gages in the river that measure stream flow constantly. The sites are the Huron River near New Hudson, the Huron River near Hamburg, Mill Creek in Dexter, and Wall Street in Ann Arbor.  These gages allow us to see how the river responds to rain and snowmelt.  A slow, gradual rate of stream flow increase (and corresponding decrease) is indicative of a more natural and higher quality river with natural areas for infiltration.  An erratic rate of increase (and decrease) is indicative of a more impacted and degraded river where pavement and pipes prevail.

The USGS also has a map of real-time streamflow compared to historical streamflow for the day of the year for Michigan.  Only one of the sites on the Huron, that farthest up on the system, is “normal”, two other sites being “above normal” and the stream flow at Wall St. in Ann Arbor is “much above normal”.  Normal flow patterns change due to increased impervious surfaces such as roads and rooftops, a loss of natural areas such as wetlands, floodplains, and forests, and dams that alter the natural flow of the river. There may also be a regional variation in annual rain amounts.  

In this and coming decades, meteorologists project more intense storms for Michigan, warming and cooling periods in close succession, and an overall warming trend.  HRWC is working hard to restore the river and creeks to a more natural and healthy system so they can respond to the “weird” weather–taking up and storing more rain water in storms, slowly releasing the water in to the groundwater, creeks, and rivers over time to keep steady flows in drier weather–overall, allowing for a more dynamic system to respond to the extreme weather.  Examples of this kind of work include the recent protection of 40 acres of wetland in the watershed and in cumulative over 6,000 acres in Washtenaw County, the removal of Mill Pond Dam in Dexter, buffer ordinances passed in 4 watershed communities in the last 4 years, the installation of over 1300 rainbarrels and 2 dozen rain gardens,  and much more.

Without funding from the USGS and local government partners to maintain these gages, it would be far more difficult to “read” the river through stream flows. Unfortunately, the gage in Milford was discontinued in the past year due to tight budgets. More, not fewer, gages are what we need on the river.

Please join us in building resilient communities and watershed.  Visit our website at

Setting Legal Lake Levels

Baseline Lake: at it's summer level!

Recently, I went to Washtenaw County Circuit Court about a lake level for Portage and Base (aka Baseline) Lakes in Washtenaw and Livingston County.  Under Michigan’s Lake Level Control Act, residents who live on the lake can petition a judge to set a legal lake level.  Yes, Legal!  The County Drain Commissioner (or now know as the Water Resources Commissioner) has to keep the lake at the court ordered level.  These lake levels are controlled by dams and their operators.

Most lakes that are formed by a dam for recreational purposes have a winter and summer level set by a judge.  Higher in the summer for docks and boat traffic and lower in the winter to protect docks and shorelines from ice and damage.

The Court case I attended was to establish a winter lake level for Portage and Base Lakes.   Standard practice was to lower the lake level in the winter, but there wasn’t a court set winter level.  The Livingston and Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioners petitioned the court to set a winter level 15-18 inches below the summer level.  Some residents wanted the lake to be lowered 30 inches and the MDNR was opposed to a winter lake lowering.

In terms of this petition, HRWC understands the balance of interests in setting lakes levels—fisheries, homeowners, recreational enthusiasts, ecologists, and more.  We also know the impacts of changing lake levels on the Huron River and its lakes.  While a river and its watershed is a changing and dynamic system, there are boundaries to how far those variations should go.  Three feet is too much.  While scientists argue for no lowering of the lake level in winter, this is not publically acceptable at this time. Given past practices and expectations, a 15 inch winter draw down is the best strategy.

Why is three feet  too much?  Although drawdowns can produce relatively weed free conditions for short periods of time, over the long-term, frequent drawdowns may result in less diverse plants and native species and more monocultures or invasive nuisance species.  Drawdowns resulting in bare sediment favor those species that colonize the fastest.  Not surprisingly, these tend to be non-native nuisance species such as Eurasion watermilfoiil and Curlyleaf Pondweed.  Over time, the drawdown can promote the replacement of a diverse native plant assemblage by monocultures of invasive exotic species….nuisance species that then result in lakewide herbicide and pesticide applications.

I agree with the direction of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to limit the range of seasonal lake level controls as we’ve seen the detrimental effects of dry spring rivers.   A gradual draw down and increase should be best practice for dam operators with the goal of minimizing extreme flows and providing a base flow.  In terms of future policy and changes to the lake level control act, we strongly support a better quantification of minimum river flows for aquatic habitat and fisheries.

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