KALAMAZOO COUNTY, MI — Road closures that have been in effect for more than a year due to high waters levels on Kalamazoo County lakes will remain, the Road Commission of Kalamazoo County says.
The extended closures come as in the midst of many flooding and water-level issues affecting local residents and their properties. Texas Township officials say the community has many lakes and wetlands that collect runoff during storms, but did not have a history of significant flooding.
That changed in 2018, when groundwater and lake levels did not recede following rain events, as they had in the past. The evaporation in the summer is usually substantial, but lake levels have been two or more feet above normal, and are currently above the 100-year flood plain, according to Texas township officials.
Due to rainfall and high water tables throughout the county, the Road Commission of Kalamazoo County recently announced South 8th Street between KL Avenue and ML Avenue in Oshtemo Township, as well as O Avenue between 6th and 4th Streets in Texas Township, will remain closed until further notice. Both have been closed to traffic for more than a year.
Construction projects are being planned to safely reopen the roadways, the road commission said in an update posted on its website. That said, the commission does not yet have a date for when the roads will be reopen, and is urging residents to refrain from moving barricades or driving around them.
In the update, the road commission called the prolonged South 8th Street flooding, which stretches about 200 feet in length just north of ML Avenue, “unusual.” The road closure in Oshtemo Township began on June 14, 2019.
“We’ve worked closely with Oshtemo Township to find a solution for this local road,” said Elli Blonde, communications administrator for the road commission. “It’s been decided to move forward with a temporary fix to get the road reopened safely to the public.”
The temporary fix involves lifting the road to get it above the current water level, Blonde said. The road commission does not have a specific start date for the work, but Blonde said officials hope to have the work completed and the road reopened to traffic by the end of 2020.
In Texas Township, the road closure on O Avenue, between 4th and 6th streets, began on April 29, 2019.
In October 2019, the township’s Flooding Task Force — made up of Texas Township officials, engineers, lake association representatives and Deputy County Drain Commissioner Jeff VanBelle— described the flooding crisis township residents have experienced as a “slow-motion disaster.”
The task force laid out a plan in October 2019 for a $1.7 million project to build a horizontal well and drainage system, designed as a long-term solution for the flooding. Texas Township officials have been engaged with civil engineering firm Prien & Newhof to evaluate and assess affected areas.
In order to proceed with the drain project, the task force must first establish legal lake levels.
To get the process moving, the task force needed 66% of homeowners on each lake to sign a petition asking commissioners to establish legal lake levels. Earlier this year, the task force gained the support of the majority of lakeside homeowners. A study to determine legal lake levels for the flooded lakes in Texas Township — Eagle and Crooked Lakes — was unanimously approved by Kalamazoo County Commissioners back in February, though the lake levels have yet to be determined.
VanBelle told MLive on Thursday, Aug. 14, that a preliminary report has been completed and was submitted to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) for comments.
“We didn’t hear anything back until the last second. When we heard back from them, they told us ‘This is a great starting point, however this isn’t going to be sufficient,” VanBelle said. “We assumed we would get down to certain details once we got to the permitting process, so we went to Prein & Newhof and said get with these guys and figure out what they want.”
VanBelle said Prein & Newhof are currently following up with EGLE to get answers to the specifics of what information is needed to continue.
“Once those questions are answered, we will then release the draft report and petition the court for a court date,” VanBelle said.
VanBelle said the report is now in the hands of attorneys for review.
As part of a state procedures for establishing and maintaining legal lake levels, EGLE’s water resource division has the ability to come to court and provide testimony in favor or in opposition to a legal lake level. That, VanBelle says, is the reason the county wants their questions about the state’s concerns answered now, rather than in a courtroom.
“We want to get their minds wrapped around this before we go through the trouble to get into court and they come in there and fight us on it for whatever reason — which they have every legal right to do,” VanBelle said. “So that’s where we’re at at the moment.”
If the findings based on the preliminary study are adequate, it will direct the prosecutor or other legal counsel to petition Kalamazoo County Circuit Court to set a court date to determine the lake levels.
VanBelle said there are eyeballs on the project from across the state — from other communities facing high-water issues.
“We’re not in the design phase,” he said. “It’s very conceptual at this point as far as how many gallons we’re going to convey and other specifics, we’re still very preliminary on that. But we’re convinced that it’ll fix the problem but we realize we’re facing some challenges on the permit.”
VanBelle said he expects the permit requirements will similar to the requirements for the pumping plan, and is hoping to be able to use that document as a starting point for the new permit application.
“We went through a lot of trouble, we brought in hydrologists from Grand Rapids, we have wetland consultants, we have groundwater monitors, and it seemed like it still wasn’t enough,” VanBelle said. “When things don’t make sense, that’s when you wonder if things went a political route. It’s been an absolute nightmare to get this going, and it’s taking way longer than it should.”
While some progress has been made in efforts to lower water levels, VanBelle said there is much more work that still needs to be done long term.
“There has been some relief,” he said. “Eagle Lake is down over 30 inches, but we got another 30 inches to go. We really started making the headway when the sun came out and it quit raining, not from the pumping that we’re spending in excess of $1.5 million that’s being special assessed back on these property owners.”
The task force’s next meeting is set for 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 20. VanBelle expects most of the conversation will center on the timeline of the continued effort toward a permanent fix that includes pipes connecting the lakes, and a pipe that will ultimately outlet to a wetland and allow excess water to flow down Portage Creek.
Like the temporary pumping, the proposed long-term solution to alleviate flooding near the lakes would be paid for through a special assessment district.
Texas Township would pay 15% of the cost, the drain commission would pay 10%, the county would pay 10% and property owners in the area would be responsible for the remaining 65%. An assessment on each of those properties would be based on both the cost incurred and benefit derived, according to the task force.
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