Why the Coldwater River now looks like a drainage ditch

Updated January, 2017

The Coldwater River Drain Disaster


Guest blog post by Dr. Bryan Burroughs, Executive Director, Michigan Trout Unlimited


Coldwater River disasterIn much of southern Michigan trout streams are a rare breed. There are a lot of reasons for this rarity, some natural, but many are the  result of us turning this part of the state into a “working landscape”. It’s filled with urban areas and farmland that completely altered the natural hydrology of our southern Michigan streams rendering them impaired or broken in terms of cold, clean water. So the rare handful of streams that have persisted cold enough and high quality enough to still support trout are coveted and revered around here, where most of the residents of the state live. These southern Michigan trout streams are analogous to a trillium flower growing up through a crack in a busy downtown sidewalk, or in the middle of a tilled and sprayed corn field. If this trillium were up north, we might not give a second look, but to find one surviving close to home in spite of its conditions offers hope, inspires reverence and stewardship, and makes some of us think we might just be able to make some more of these trilliums grow here. The Coldwater River, located about 40 minutes west of Lansing was one of these rare trilliums of a trout stream. That is until this past 6 months when the Drain Commission and its agents dug a 12 mile long trench in the ground around that rare little blossom.

The River

Editor’s note:

“The Coldwater River Drain Disaster” by Dr. Bryan Burroughs originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Michigan Trout Unlimited. Dr. Burroughs is Executive Director of Michigan Trout Unlimited and a member of the Board of Directors for Michigan Environmental Council.

MEC republished the article as “Guest post: Coldwater River fiasco highlights need for drain code reform” on its Michigan Distilled blog site in a version gently edited by MEC Communications Director Andy McGlashen. The unedited version appears here.

Thanks from the Sierra Club SouthWest Michigan Group to both organizations for granting republication permission and for making the damage to the Coldwater River a public issue.

Thanks especially to Dr. Burroughs for his in-depth reporting.

The Coldwater River, also referred to as the Little Thornapple River, originates at Jordan Lake (in the town of Lake Odessa), flows southward almost to Hastings, turns northwest and then flows downstream till it joins the Thornapple River, which then joins the Grand River. Despite originating from a lake and flowing through farm lands, this river kept temperatures cold enough to support brown trout. The DNR had augmented natural reproduction in the river by stocking some brown trout into the river system since at least 1979, with numbers stocked dropping through time from ~8,000 down to ~2,000 – 3,000 in recent years. Among property owners on the river and local area residents, trout fishing this river was pervasive. TU members from Lansing to Grand Rapids frequented the river as their local trout angling waters, and over the last decade or so had invested significant time, energy and money into enhancement efforts in this watershed, including the removal of the Freeport Dam last year. Among those anglers to covet angling here include DNR Fisheries Division Chief Jim Dexter and well-known Michigan trout guru Jim Bedford. Bedford, who has fished more of the state’s trout rivers than just about anyone, and who authored books and innumerable magazine articles on Michigan’s trout waters, identified the Coldwater River as having produced more trophy brown trout for him than any other river in the state. Michigan Out Of Doors Television Associate Producer Jordan Browne caught his personal best brown trout from the Coldwater River, and recently aired a segment on the damage done here [segment begins at 19:18 on the video]. Normally I’d never divulge such privileged information, but unfortunately it won’t offer that kind of quality fishing any time soon now.

The Drain

This trout stream is also a designated drain, under the Michigan Drain Code. One look at this river from aerial photos would confirm that is was long ago designated as a drain and dredged and straightened, removing all of the natural meanders from it. As it flows through three counties, Ionia, Barry and Kent, its maintenance as a drain is governed by an InterCounty Drain Board, made up of the drain commissioners from each of those counties (John Bush – Ionia, Russ Yarger – Barry, and Bill Byl – Kent), plus a representative from the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development. This InterCounty Drain Board oversaw approval of the contract for the work that led to the devastation. However, since all of the work conducted was within Barry County, oversight for the work (or lack of it) was largely left to the Barry County Drain Commissioner – Russ Yarger. The contractor that did the actual damaging work was Roger Geiger of Geiger Excavation in Woodland, Michigan.

The Drain Commission maintains right of way easements along both sides of the designated drain, to conduct maintenance work. The Michigan Drain Code, commonly known as the most far-reaching authority-granting statute on the books, gives the Drain Commissioners nearly unchecked authority to initiate and execute drain maintenance work, avoid almost all of the permitting requirements mandatory for everyone else working in or along rivers, and authority to assess the costs of such work to all property owners in the drainage assessment district (without requiring approval by them for the taxation).

These far-reaching authorities and exemptions from regulations create the environment for abuse of these privileges and abuse of our public waters. As a whole, drain commissioners have attempted to create and adhere to guidance or BMP’s for much of the work they do. Many commissioners attempt to adhere to best practices, and some are even recognized for their natural resource stewardship and partnerships with local conservation groups. However, the authorities currently provided to them as a whole continues to nurture “bad actors” and defy their best efforts at self-regulation. Over the past few years, we’ve seen significant stream damage from drain maintenance work about once per year. Just last year, about 3 miles of the Battle Creek River (optimal pike habitat) was similarly torn up. The damage to the Coldwater River was not an isolated first, but the most recent and most extensive.

The Incident

Another editor’s note:

More information –

MLive also reported on the Coldwater River’s problems and the findings Dr. Burroughs turned up in his investigation. MLive’s report included the photos below. Click any of the photos to see an enlarged view.

Coldwater River DisasterColdwater River DisasterColdwater River DisasterColdwater River DisasterThe Detroit Free Press and The Hastings Banner reported on the Coldwater River devastation in April, and the Hastings Banner followed up with another report in May.

Contact information:

Barry County Drain Commissioner – phone (269) 945-1385 Commissioner: Russ Yarger – email.

Ionia County Drain Commissioner – phone (616) 527-5373 Commissioner: John M. Bush – email.

Kent County Drain Commissioner – phone (616) 632-7910 Commissioner: William R. Bill – email.

Geiger Excavation – phone (269) 367-4220.

The impetus for this drain maintenance work was complaints from several residents on Jordan Lake, complaining about flooding issues. For now, try to forget the fact that lakefront property owners live at the interface of the water table, and that the last few years have seen increases in water tables as evidenced in the dramatic reversal of Great Lakes water levels. Try to forget too, that a small dam exists at the outlet of the lake, which could have been lowered or removed to convey water and alleviate flooding on the lake. Try as well to look past the fact that zero reports of flooding on any agricultural acreage in the drainage district were reported to the InterCounty Drain Board. Surveying of the longitudinal profile of the river should have been ordered as the basis of determining and justifying whether drain maintenance was actually needed to alleviate upstream flooding issues. It wasn’t. Rather, the Board noted in its meeting minutes that it remained unconvinced that the drain maintenance work would alleviate the Jordan Lake flooding issues, yet proceeded to authorize and contract for the work from the outlet of the lake downstream approximately 12 -14 miles. To date, we have not acquired a copy of the actual contract, but in public meetings it has been communicated that the contract was essentially for the removal of dead or live ash trees along the river course, and possibly for the removal of large wood debris jams.

The contract was awarded to Geiger Excavation and commenced in November of 2014. According to numerous public comments provided at two public meetings this spring, numerous landowners issue comments of concern to the contractor and the Barry County Drain Commissioner as the work progressed. [Worth note: many of the property owners confronting the contractor in person, were told by the contractor that TU was behind the work being done, and may even come through after it to set up recreational access trails across their private property!] For unknown reasons, it now appears that the contractor was doing work outside of the scope of contract. By spring of 2015, the work had progressed far enough downstream that TU members were able to witness the scope of the damages via public road crossings. Complaints were filed by many people, and about a month later, at a meeting of the InterCounty Drain Board, the work was finally officially stopped. The damages had proceeded approximately 12 -14 miles downstream from the lake outlet.

The Damage

Official assessments of damage are now underway; generally speaking though, it appears wood was removed from in the stream, as well as from two other small tributary streams entering the Coldwater River, live trees of many species were cut from along the river banks (one property owner reported her stand of veneer quality black walnut trees were cut as well), stream banks were excavated, and some evidence suggests that the streambed was excavated in places as well. In a violation notice issued from the DEQ on April 17, 2015, the DEQ noted that it either believes or suspects that violations of Part 4, 31, 91, 301 and 303 of NREPA have occurred.

Trout in the Coldwater River system will experience the damage caused here in several ways. First, wood cover in the stream was removed, and is essential to whether a trout will inhabit it. Secondly, the stream banks have been badly perturbed, which along with the work conducted, can be expected to lead to sedimentation of the river. Several property owners have already noted observing sedimentation of riffles and pools along their sections of river. But perhaps the damage with the greatest long-term consequence for this fishery, is the loss of significant amounts of the canopy cover over such a long stretch of it. With this loss of canopy cover will come increased warming of the waters. Only time will tell how great a warming affect this will have on this river, and whether it will render the river outside the temperature range to sustain trout in the future. Mature canopy trees are not easily or quickly replaced.

What’s Being Done

The InterCounty Drain Board appears in comment at two public meetings, to acknowledge the damage done here, and to be initiating steps to address it. They contracted Aaron Snell of Streamside Ecological Services, to begin developing a short-term remediation plan, as well as a long-term remediation plan. Snell is a private consultant specializing in stream restoration, who along with being a TU member, has worked with local TU chapters and the Coldwater River Watershed Council on past Coldwater River restoration projects, and was also one of the first to issue complaints about the work to the InterCounty Drain Board. A response to the DEQ’s violation notice will be prepared, and the restoration plans shared with them. The InterCounty Drain Board has communicated its intent to seek input on the plans from TU and the local Watershed Council after discussing it with the DEQ. We expect the remediation to address urgent sediment erosion measures first, followed by longer term restoration measures after that is completed.

A group of state agencies and conservation groups has formed to set up enhanced long-term monitoring plans to track the impact and hopefully recovery of the Coldwater River. That work is being formulated at the time of writing this. MITU expects to use its River Stewards program to deploy water temperature loggers through the impacted reach this summer, as well as conduct instream fish habitat assessments to help guide long- term restoration work.

Legal actions to be pursued are unclear at this time, but are being evaluated diligently. The DEQ has issued a notice of violation and will be pursuing action on the statutes it believes have been violated. The InterCounty Drain Board has retained legal representation. We do not know what actions they will take at this point, but would expect them to pursue breach of contract complaints with the contractor. We might also expect individual or class action landowner claims of damages to their property rights, property values, and intrinsic property uses to be directed at the contractor and/or InterCounty Drain Board. The Coldwater River Watershed Council has retained legal representation and is evaluating its course of action. And of course, MITU has legal counsel for this matter and is evaluating actions it may need to take.

Coldwater River Disaster

The Coldwater River Disaster. Photo from Michigan Trout Unlimited, Summer 2015

Lastly, legislative action needs to occur. The Coldwater River was not the first stream victim of the Michigan Drain Code, and without reform to it, will not be the last. The Michigan Association of Counties, Drain Commissioners and the companies that service them collectively form a very effective lobbying presence in Lansing. Their opposition to reform of the Drain Code will result in a long, difficult and dogged fight. We are hopeful that they will recognize that their best collective efforts to self-regulate against these types of incidents are not resilient to their own worst actors, and these incidents paint their entire community in a horrible light. These streams are public resources, waters of the State, and are capable of providing multiple services to all of us simultaneously, whether its drainage, aesthetics, private property rights, or incredible angling… if we are careful and judicious in our management of them. MITU will be looking to partner with the Drain Commissioners to accomplish some sensible and needed reform to the Drain Code to ensure this kind of natural resource damage does not occur in Michigan again.

We’ll keep you informed of how this issue develops, and will be working in the meantime to see it develops well.

Update, January, 2017

Here’s a new video from Coldwater River Watershed Council showing how the watershed’s neighbors and local businesses have pitched in to help improve the river.

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