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Morrow Dam owner cited for ‘erratic’ swings in Kalamazoo River flow

By Garret Ellison KALAMAZOO, MI — Large spontaneous swings in Kalamazoo River flow and water levels are drawing the attention of state regulators, who issued a legal violation notice this month to the owner of a hydroelectric dam behind an ongoing ecological crisis in the beleaguered waterway.

On July 1, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) cited Eagle Creek Renewable Energy for causing “erratic flows” through its Morrow Dam in Comstock Township and substantially dropping the river level downstream without seeking a permit.

The letter indicates Eagle Creek has been performing maintenance on the dam’s generator without making flow adjustments to compensate for downstream impacts.

Unannounced flow cutbacks can diminish wildlife habitat and strand boaters, EGLE says. The dam operates as a “run-of-the-river” facility, where water flowing out is supposed to equal the water flowing in from the upstream reservoir.

That flow has been cut “abruptly” by up to half, the state says.

“We’ve been seeing these unexplained drops periodically for a while now,” said Kyle Alexander with EGLE’s water resources division in Kalamazoo.

“What became alarming in more recent months is when we knew we were having high flows after the precipitation we received, and we still saw these sharp drops,” he said.

“Those became puzzling and hard to explain away.”

A U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gauge in the Kalamazoo River at Comstock Township shows sharp decreases in flow between Jan. and early July 2021.

In its letter, EGLE also called attention to the fact that volatile flows are likely causing an estimated 369,000 cubic yards of sediment that already washed downstream from Morrow Lake to move further downriver into communities like Plainwell, Otsego and Allegan.

The sediment began choking the river between Comstock and Cooper townships in late 2019. It has smothered wildlife habitat and re-contoured river bends and banks. Local anglers have pushed for dredging, but only a tiny fraction of the material has been removed.

“It is likely that the erratic flows, resulting from the failure to maintain run-of-river, are further mobilizing the numerous sediment deposits that exist downstream,” EGLE wrote.

Eagle Creek directors did not reply to a message seeking comment Wednesday. The Bethesda, Md.-based company is a subsidiary of Ontario Power Generation (OPG) of Canada. Eagle Creek operates the dam through a subsidiary, STS Hydropower, which it purchased in 2017.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates Morrow Dam as a hydroelectricity producer, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Local anglers say the flow drops coupled with excessive sediment in the river stretch through Kalamazoo and Parchment make boating access unsafe.

Mudflat buildup has already cut off boating access at Mayors Riverfront Park in Kalamazoo. Fishermen have mostly relied on access at Verburg Park to get boats on the water, but the inlet to a cove where the launch is located is already choked with sediment during normal river flow.

“When they cut flow, they cut it fast,” said Ryan Baker of the Kalamazoo River Alliance, a group formed last year to help steward the river and watchdog the sediment problem.

“It’s not like a gradual reduction,” Baker said. “It drops a foot or two in a matter of a couple hours. If that were to happen while you’re out on a boat, you’re not getting back in. You’d be physically stuck on the water for however long it took for it to come back up.”

Baker said Alliance members began questioning the water level fluctuations in the spring after they kept happening despite the river ice having melted.

Eagle Creek initially blamed spring flow fluctuations on an ice dam upstream, but “neither us nor the city saw any evidence” of such conditions, said Alexander.

The latest violation notice is not the first time the state has cited Eagle Creek for taking unannounced actions that affect the river. The company received citations for draining Morrow Lake in late 2019 without adequate notification or sediment control measures in place. Settlement negotiations between EGLE and Eagle Creek following that incident are ongoing.

Eagle Creek received permits to drop the river four separate times last fall while it made repairs to the dam spillway gates, a project that took place a full year after the impoundment was drained. According to a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gauge at Merrill Park, some of this year’s unauthorized flow cutbacks rivaled those fall drawdowns.

Under pressure from regulators, anglers and state lawmakers, Eagle Creek announced plans to dredge sediment from two areas this summer. But those plans were being finalized in June before a dry spring turned to a wet summer with repeated bouts of heavy rainfall across the state. The river level has increased substantially in recent weeks.

Alexander said plans are still pending to dredge sediment next to the dam on the downstream side and next to the Willow Boulevard Landfill near the Kings Highway bridge.

Part of the holdup is determining where the dredge spoils should end up. The state wants Eagle Creek to dry and landfill the material. The company, which owns a substantial amount of land around Morrow Lake, wants to leave it somewhere around the impoundment. Alexander indicated the outcome likely depends on the results of additional contaminant sampling and a landfilling feasibility analysis.

“Nothing has been delayed because of the weather yet,” Alexander said.

When the river level drops, Alexander said EGLE will go survey the sediment deposits to see how much they’ve moved.

Baker, who goes out on his boat regularly, said the river has washed sediment from back eddies in Comstock and Kalamazoo townships, but his group is being contacted by riparian property owners in the Otsego and Allegan areas who say they’re seeing increased sediment buildup.

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