By Terry Gill and Cheryl Collins, Mill Creek Volunteer Monitoring Project
In 1991 the South Branch of Mill Creek Inter-county Drainage Board proposed the dredging of 17 miles of the South Branch of Mill Creek. The proposed dredging project was to start in Lapeer County, Michigan and continue seventeen miles downstream into St. Clair County. Most of the creek in the proposed project area had not been dredged since 1957 and had begun to revert to its pre-dredging characteristics. Three miles of the stream, having never been dredged, continued to exist as a naturally meandering stream. Over the years, obstructions, including a collapsed bridge, logjams, rock dams, and beaver dams had collected in the creek impeading its flow. This section of the creek is quite flat, descending less than 1 ½ feet per mile, so the obstructions in the creek were holding back quite a bit of water.
After years of grassroots efforts in opposition to the dredging project a compromise was reached in 1999. As a part of the compromise it was decided that 1¾ miles of the creek would be dredged and the river restoration techniques of George Palmiter would be applied to the remaining 15¼ miles of the creek. Although the majority of the creek would escape dredging in this agreement, there was concern about a stipulation in the agreement allowing the Intercounty Drainage Board (IDB) to decide in June 2001 if the compromise project had been successful or if the 15¼ miles of the river restoration section would also be dredged.
The Mill Creek Volunteer Monitoring Project (MCVMP) was organized in the spring of 1999 after citizens recognized the urgent need to set up a monitoring program for Mill Creek. The MCVMP is a dedicated grassroots group whose mission is to preserve the water quality and aquatic habitat of Mill Creek by documenting the effects of dredging compared to the effects of river restoration and using the data collected to prevent further dredging of Mill Creek. Members were concerned by the fact that the only criteria that had been chosen by the IDB for determining the fate of the remaining 15¼ miles of the river was water conveyance. The MCVMP decided to gather additional data including photos and other information on soil erosion, benthic macroinvertebrates, and stream bank habitat that they felt should also be factored into the June 2001 decision.
Having only a short amount of time before the 1.75-mile dredging project was scheduled to begin the MCVMP began work to train volunteers and select monitoring sites. The group chose six monitoring locations: two sites in the river restoration section that had never been dredged, two sites in the creek section that had not been dredged since 1957 where river restoration techniques would be used, and two sites in the area that would be dredged as part of the compromise agreement. The site where volunteer monitors had been trained would be used as a seventh monitoring site and a training location for new volunteers.
In the spring and fall of 1999 and 2000 all seven sites were monitored and information on the health of the stream was collected. In 2000 the MCVMP applied for and received a grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Volunteer Monitoring Program enabling the MCVMP to publish the results of the stream monitoring. Although having the reports printed in color increased the total project cost it was decided that reprinting pictures of the stream in full color would help to show the dramatic differences between dredged and non-dredged sites, and it did.
The MCVMP’s first annual report, “The Effects of Dredging vs. The Effects of River Restoration On Mill Creek” documented the extensive erosion, loss of aquatic habitat and vegetation, sedimentation, and reduced water quality at the dredged sites. The report showed that the river restoration sites suffered few, if any, negative impacts. The dredged sites consistently scored lower for water quality than the river restoration or natural sites. The dredged sites had to have their banks reshaped only four months after having been dredged because they were eroding and collapsing. Two months after the banks were reshaped, they were eroding again. Sediment was already collecting on the bottom of the dredged sites only four months after dredging, and in places the sediment was deep enough to narrow the channel. Only the sites that had never been dredged tested “Excellent” for water quality using the DEQ Benthic Macroinvertebrate Score Sheet.
Volunteers distributed the report to elected officials within the Mill Creek Drainage Project area, all county drain commissioners, offices of MDEQ Land and Water Management and Soil Erosion, Michigan Department of Agriculture, several environmental groups, several newspapers, and other interested individuals. The dramatic full-color report proved to be very successful and drew requests for copies from citizens and environmental groups throughout Michigan and in Canada. Members of the MCVMP were invited to speak to various groups throughout Michigan providing an opportunity to share information on the devastating effects of dredging with an even broader audience. Based on the interest in the first annual report two new sites were added to the project in spring of 2001, one of these sites had never been dredged and the other had not been dredged since 1965.
At the June 2001 meeting of the Drainage Board, the MCVMP volunteers presented their first annual report and other data that had been collected through the project. The Drainage Board could not ignore the information presented or the public interest in the project, and decided to postpone the decision of whether or not the river restoration section should be dredged. We believe that our data collection and our first annual report were instrumental in putting pressure on the IDB to appoint a Technical Advisory Group (TAG), to determine the best, most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to improve drainage.
Because the fate of Mill Creek had not yet been decided the MCVMP knew that it was imperative that we continue to document the effects of dredging versus river restoration through our monitoring efforts and a second annual report. In 2001 we applied for and received a grant from the GLAHNF grants program to publish a second annual report. The second report included data on each of the nine monitoring sites, and as with the first was distributed to governmental officials, agencies, environmental groups and individuals to provide additional information on the extended effects of dredging versus river restoration.
Although a majority of the TAG felt that the data presented in the two annual reports did document the success of the river restoration and agreed that dredging should be limited or discouraged, the IDB has chosen to ignore the evidence in the reports and the TAG recommendations. MCVMP volunteers have taken their case to the state Senate. The reports have been distributed to the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has been taking testimony on amending the Michigan Drain Code. A MCVMP member will be part of the working group that will be meeting to work on the Drain Code bill.
MCVMP volunteers have also used the reports to educate and inform the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) of the soil erosion and sedimentation that is occurring at the dredged sites as opposed to the restored sites. After several calls from MDEQ to the IDB with unsatisfactory responses, a representative from the MDEQ visited the site. As a result the IDB has been informed that the Michigan Department of Agriculture, which is the Authorized Public Agency for the project, could face a $25,000 a day fine if the problems at one of the sites are not addressed.
Even though much information has been presented to the Drainage Board about the detriments of full scale dredging and the benefits of river restoration, Mill Creek is still being threatened. The MCVMP is fortunate in that there is a strong core of volunteers who are committed to the success of this project. We have been vigilant in our efforts to protect Mill Creek and have been successful in our use of both the first and second annual reports as we continue to educate both the public and key players in the decision-making and regulatory process.
We will continue this project no matter what happens. If we are successful and river restoration techniques are allowed to continue in the remainder of the creek we will persist in showing the advantages of river restoration through our reports. If the IDB decides to ignore all evidence to the contrary and does dredge the remainder of the creek our continued monitoring efforts and future annual reports will be used as instruments in our efforts to change the Michigan Drain Code. We have seen the impact that effective presentation of our monitoring efforts can have and are not going to give up.