Monitoring Produces Dramatic Results
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
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.