By Scott Sullivan
Douglas City Council Monday joined peers in Saugatuck agreeing to contribute $5,000 to help fund a $50,000 Kalamazoo Lake sediment contamination analysis.
The project is part of a larger effort to, if study findings indicate, make dredging more affordable and “save the harbor.”
Such is the mantra of Tower Marine owner R.J. Peterson, 93, who has long called for finding affordable ways to maintain the silt-challenged waterway for boat usage.
Peterson, who is helping fund the study through the Saugatuck-Douglas Chamber of Commerce he heads, has an obvious stake in its outcome. But he’s not alone.
A 1996 study contracted through the JJR engineering firm by Douglas and Saug-atuck cities called the harbor “the economic lifeblood of the community.” Boaters stay, eat, shop here and more.
The study also noted comprehensive dredging of the harbor — last done in 1936 by the federal government using spoils to create what is now the Blue Star Bridge causeway — might cost as much as $45 million.
Complicating that is the fact the Kalamazoo River, polluted with PCBs from paper mills upstream in Plainwell-Otsego and Kalamazoo, was declared a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site all the way downstream to Lake Michigan nearly 40 years ago.
Some cleanup — funded by potentially-responsible parties such as Georgia Pacific, which subsequently acquired the paper mill sites — has been undertaken near the pollution point sources, but has yet to come near where the current slows as the river banks widen in Kal Lake and drops silt here.
PCBs aren’t the only unwelcome chemicals in the water sediment. Arsenic from fruit orchard spraying, phosphates from upstream farm runoff fertilizers, an assortment from other manufacturers … bear measuring too.
Contaminant concentration in the sediment has almost certainly declined since the EPA’s site designation, but has it been enough so dredged spoils from the harbor no longer by law must be hauled to and/or stored in an expensive contained facilities?
What is considered “clean” fill can be stored almost anywhere — witness the U.S Army Corps of Engineers this spring dredging the federal channel from near Coral Gables to the river mouth at Lake Michigan, then using spoils to “re-nourish” Saugatuck’s Oval Beach. Such fill can have enough value to be sold as well.
Record-high Great Lakes water levels in recent years have given Kal Lake boaters a reprieve even while causing flooding in town and myriad other issues.
But those levels have not stopped — in fact, they have hidden — the estimated annual 36,000 cubic yards (enough to cover a 100-yard football field four feet deep) from upstream dropped in Kal Lake each year.
What goes up (in this case, Great Lakes water levels) will go down eventually. Peterson more than most has seen and can attest to this. Unless dredged, those spoils filling up the lake’s bottom may surface as they did when lake levels were at record lows seven years ago. Boating might dry up accordingly as the lake reverts to a wetland.
Peterson has approached local governments, including the Allegan County Commission, to apply for a Michigan Department of Natural Resources Waterways Grant to sample, map and study local harbor contamination. Its goal (and cost estimates):
- Generate depth and lake bottom maps ($25,000),
- Sediment contamination analysis ($60,000), and
- Sediment deposition modeling ($75,000).
The state agency, through the county, agreed to fund half of a total project estimated at $160,000. The two local cities, Saugatuck Township, the county and Chamber will, in theory, split costs to match it.
At a recent county meeting it was determined the scope and costs associated with the full project might be prohibitive due to the limited budgets of local government units, and that sediment analysis was the most critical starting component.
Leaders chose to reduce needed funding for that to $50,000, of which Waterways would pay half and the five local entities $5,000 each.
The township board tabled a motion to do so at its monthly meeting Sept. 4, opting to first see how other partners respond. Saugatuck City Council agreed to step up Sept. 9 contingent on other proposed partners doing so.
Michigan Environmental, Great Lakes and Energy department employees collected core sediment samples at points ranging from the I-196 bridge to Lake Michigan July 15-19.
Testing, based on PCB measurement efforts in 2000, 2012 and 2013, are being assessed by the Michigan Technological University-based Great Lakes Research Institute to show areas, if any, of concern, report on its findings and their implications for future dredging.
Director Bob Schuchman, who maintains a home in Saugatuck, says GLRI hopesto complete its analysis this fall and report results to the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for possible future action.
“We believe,” says the Institute, “the data will show:
“• The water and contaminants in the sediment pose no health threat to boaters and swimmers,
“• Updated depth maps will show the shallow areas to avoid on jet skis or when towing a tube or water skiing,
“• Sedimentation maps using the new and historical depth information,
“• Digital bathymetry for planning for low and high water years,
“• A circulation map that will show where nuisance aquatic vegetation will accumulate, plus where sediments are occurring in the area,
“• The circulation model, along with the water quality and sediment contamination data, can be used to show Oval Beach is a safe place to recreate,
“• The model and core data will be used to design an assisted natural transport scenario for Kalamazoo Lake and the surrounding harbor area, and
“• The new bathymetry maps, along with historical Lake Michigan water levels, will be used to create a set of science-based standard engineering guidelines to address high water conditions.”
A full plate of data. Might benefits come from it? That’s the hope, at least.