Roads, Drains, & Disasters
Is Newaygo County Heading for a New Weather Normal Thanks to Climate Change?
By Charles Chandler
CNN Report: July 2019 has replaced July 2016 as the hottest month on record.
Scorching heat waves, wildfires, and devastating floods across the globe are no longer weather anomalies but part of the new normal thanks to global warming, scientists say. “The old records belong to a world that no longer exists,” Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Washington Post. Numerous cities that had previously been immune to sweltering heat waves experienced the effects of climate change this summer, including a snowy region just north of the Arctic Circle in Finland that recorded a temperature of 90 degrees earlier this month. In Greece and Japan, record-breaking temperatures claimed dozens of lives. And in the U.S., at least 35 weather stations set new records for warm overnight temperatures in the past month. Scientists say the temperatures will only keep increasing, and extreme weather events will only become more catastrophic as the burning of fossil fuels injects more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Another headline report: Warming, fires, warming, fires: How tundra wildfires could create an unstoppable cycle
“High water temperatures are stalling runs and killing fish in several Alaska regions.
Managers say weeks of record hot and dry weather has pushed water temps to the mid-70s in Prince William Sound and have disrupted normal migration behavior and slowed down the salmon runs.”
On a personal note, in previous July’s this N3 contributor would have been in Alaska fishing for salmon in the Bristol Bay tributaries. It is unimaginable that the soggy, Alaskan tundra and peat bogs would be dry enough to burn. That those cold glacial-fed streams and rivers would warm to the degree that spawning salmon would be deterred from their biological destiny. Yet in the last few years, that has become a reality.
What do all these events have to do with Newaygo County? It appears to be pretty normal around here, no major fires like those in California or Alaska. Nothing like the flooding in the Mississippi River drainage or the hammering folks in the gulf coast or central states received this past spring. We are pretty lucky here in Newaygo County because nearby Lake Michigan ameliorates our weather. We haven’t seen the effects of global warming in our part of the Mitten.
Well, that depends on who you talk to. There will probably be a different response from those folks that are out in the weather year-round and have the responsibility to deal with the consequences of weather-related events in Newaygo County.
What I do know is that we humans deal with the weather as we do with pain. Once it is gone, we soon forget about it. As we bask in this perfect lakeside beer and brats’ weather most of us have forgotten about the floods on March 14th, a perfect storm of weather that led to some serious flooding in Newaygo County. The ground was frozen, there was snow cover and then we had a downpour. The frozen ground exacerbated the problem and rather than absorbing the water expedited the heavy runoff which exceeded the carrying capacity of the natural and manmade drainage systems. Gravity always wins and this sheeting water raced to and through the lowest points in the drainage, be it road ditches, county drains, basements and those homes around Martin Lake located northwest of Fremont.
According to Newaygo County Emergency Services (EMS) Director Abby Watkins: “The flooding happened in pockets throughout the county and was not isolated to a particular area. About 132 property owners reported the damage. There were about 33 road washouts and 11 culvert failures and nine roads closed. During the peak of the flooding about 100 roads had water over them.
“By March 19th Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for the county, making it eligible for state resources.”
With some helping hands from various agencies and the community, some of the homeowners are putting their lives back together. Mind you some of these flood victims live on high ground and in places that have never flooded in the past.
Was this March flood the new weather normal for residents in Newaygo County?
If it is, then these long summer days would be the time to prepare for another such event.
And what would that information or preparation look like?
A call to our County Departments that deal with these situations would be a place to start. Looping back to that March event Ms. Abby Watkins Director of Emergency Services, Mr. Dale Twing our Drain Commissioner and Mr. Kelly Smith our Road Commission Manager agreed to give us their thoughts on their departments and the past spring flood. Also, provide a few recommendations from their perspective as to how we could prepare for a future event or maybe a New Weather Normal.
Director of Emergency Services Abby Watkins
The Newaygo Emergency Management and Homeland Security department (EMS) is the 911 for 911. When things get unique and complex and we need an enhanced level of coordination and support to prepare, respond to or recover from those emergencies and disasters that impact Newaygo County, our office coordinates those events.
Regarding the new normal questions, this past spring both I and my Deputy Director attended a national emergency preparedness education course on the changing climate. The focus of the curriculum was on the impacts of a changing climate and the frequencies of emergencies and associated responses.
What I have seen locally in the past 12 years, is an increase in heavy rainfall. There has been about a 40 % increase in these rainfall events in the Great Lakes area. There also has been a swing in our precipitation patterns, we are getting more rainfall in the early spring when the frost is still on the ground along with rapid fluctuations in temperatures. All of those events equate to more water, more impact to more people that are in the way. We are seeing changes and more emergency responses to those events.
As an example, with the March 14th event, the ground was frozen and could not absorb any water. We had two inches of rainfall on top of four to six inches of moisture in the snowpack which resulted in about 8 inches of moving water in about 12 hours. It appears that Martin Lake rose about four feet. That water simply went where it could go, across fields, overtopping road ditches, into basements, streams, rivers and wherever. The flooding in the Martin Lake area was because of the amount of rainfall and snowmelt in that specific area.
“What can Newaygo County residents do to mitigate the consequences of another such event or a new normal? Educate yourself and your family to the potential hazards and risk in Newaygo County.You can begin by accessing the following links https://countyofnewaygo.com/EmergencyServices.aspx and go to http://www.countyofnewaygo.com/Resources/EmergencyServices/Newaygo%20County%20Hazard%20Management%20Plan at the bottom of the page.”
Director Watkins provided a packet of relevant information and stressed the importance of “Disaster Preparedness, One step at a time.” Disaster preparedness can be broken down into four key steps:
1. Know about alerts and warnings systems
2. Make a Plan
3. Build a kit
4. Practice and maintain your plan and Kit.
The Family Preparedness Guide by the Michigan State Police was extremely informative. Other suggestions were to sign up and develop a profile in the NIXLE and Smart 911 Systems. Review your insurance policy and determine what types of events and emergencies are covered. Determine the risk associated within your area of residence and see if you qualify for flood insurance. Director Watkins restated that you can contact the EMS department and they can provide valuable information about preparation for these kinds of emergencies.
Drain Commissioner Dale Twing
Whether these weather patterns are the new normal or just an extreme part of a natural cycle is a good question. We do know they are more intense than most of us are used to dealing with.
For a little history and background on our County Drain systems. We know that when this area was settled and began to be developed it was like many areas in Michigan, mostly swamp. Over time water drains (ditches and small canals) were developed to move water from one wet area to another. They generally followed the natural drainage. The purpose of these drains was to dry up the land so that folks could develop farms fields, and build roads and homes. Some of these drains are over 100 years old. Even today when I assess a drain district, I get questions from residents, especially those that live on high ground as to why they should have to pay the assessments for the drains. There are many reasons that you need the County drains. You need them to move water off your property. You need them so that we can maintain the roads so that you can reliably get to and from your property. So that emergency services like fire, ambulances, and police can serve you and the community.
We inspect our drain ever three years and ensure that they are clean and working properly. Our maintenance workload is increasing because of the infestations of various invasive species like Emerald Ash Borer that kill the ash trees and they fall across the drains and have to be removed. We now have the Autumn Olive shrub growing along the banks and it has to be dug out and sprayed or it comes back with a vengeance. In the drains, we also have infestations of Milfoil weeds that have to be treated.
This invasive water plant cannot be completely eradicated once established. Then there are the beavers. In some cases where there are beaver dams that are creating a health or safety issue like backing water over a homeowner septic system, we can get a nuisance permit from the DNR to go in and remove the beaver and dam.
During the March 14th flood, most of the County drains worked well. However, some certainly might be under capacity as they were built many years ago. That said I need petitions to do an expansion of a drain which is often a long and expensive process. I don’t like to tax people but we get no funds for these expansions from anywhere. We have to assess the residents of the watershed.
Sometimes after doing a cost-benefit analysis, it is just not worth it. In that case, it makes more sense and cheaper to have the property owners do something on their own. We can only do work on legal established drains. Often many of the complaints our department receives are either related to City and or the Road Commission’s drainage. We work very closely and collaborate with the Road Commission because the waters commingle and it is an efficient way to maintain our entire drainage systems
Also, what we notice now is that even if our drains are clear they can quickly reach carrying capacity, because over time the drainage landscape has changed. Humans are impacting the drainage system. Farmers are filling in wetlands, tiling their fields and there is more development. Now the water is getting to the road ditch and into the County drains much faster.
During the March 14th flood, most of the County drains worked well but their carrying capacity was exceeded. We did receive a lot of calls and after the event we worked with FEMA and County Emergency Services. Most agreed that this was a perfect storm given the frozen ground, snowpack, and rain. It probably was a 100-year event and the chances of that happening again is pretty slim. There are some expectations from residents that they will be protected from floods events like this one. Sometimes folks expect more than we can deliver. So, the question is, do you build an expensive system for a 100-year event or to the norm? We can do whatever we need to do but it has to be done through the petition and assessment process. After you do a cost-benefit analysis for building such a system you can see where there are more cost-effective ways to improve the drainage system.
Some suggestions would be that when building new structures, add drain tiles around the footings and sump pumps in the basement. You should keep the driveway culverts cleaned out and clear. If your property has been built in a low spot survey the property and take some preventative measures. Sometimes added berms, ditching, tiling and other ways to direct and control the water flow can be very helpful. We will always respond to calls and will go out and give advice or a petition for a project. We will meet with individuals or in public meetings and advise on the best way to solve a drain problem.
In response to the March 14th flood, we have three projects underway. One is on MDOT 37 south of Grant, one is coming out of Martin Lake, and one coming out of Ramshorn. We always have to prioritize our work but we will respond to calls and requests.
Often, I get calls on issues between neighbors which we try to stay out of and just refer people to other resources. We will always collaborate with County residents and offer advice or direct them to other appropriate resources.
Road Commission Manager Kelly Smith
When considering emergencies like floods, we would like to level some expectations, we understand we are a governmental organization and we help resolve problems for our taxpayers. We will always do that within our area of responsibility, our County roads and our right of way, including ditches and culverts. Often it just takes time to respond to events and problems. We prioritize our work from the worst case on down and will eventuality get to all the problems. We do have our limitations and have to prioritize our projects and manage our resources and budgets.
It would be helpful if homeowners that can help themselves would do something preemptive. Doing that would free up time for us to help those for whatever reason cannot help themselves Some of those easy preemptive things that homeowners can do to improve drainage is keep their storm drains clear of debris. Then don’t rake leaves into the road ditches and burn them. Those that can help themselves will usually see less damage in these kinds of events.
As for the March 14th flood, we understand that it was probably a 100-year event. Because the ground was frozen much of the runoff was not related to roads and ditches, a lot of that water came overland, through agricultural fields taking the downhill paths throughout the drainage. A lot of the water that went into Martin Lake came not from the normal lake inlet but downhill and along the private roads. If we surveyed the homes and properties around Martin Lake you could see the ones that were most vulnerable to these kinds of events. Some of the homes are only about a foot above normal lake level. Those homes were the first and most affected by the runoff and the quick rise in lake water level. We hope homes in those low-lying areas that are prone to flooding would take some precautions.
During the March 14th flood, our system of ditches and culverts worked pretty well. But the capacity was exceeded by this 100-year event. Can we overengineer and overbuild a system that could have handled that runoff, sure. In our system, we use 12-inch culverts in two-foot-deep ditches. We could install 24-inch culverts but you would need a four-foot ditch. A ditch that you could not mow. You can over-engineer the system but given our limitations, we would probably only do three projects in a year rather than the 30 that we do now. Building and maintaining a system that can manage a 100-year rain event is probably not practical. It would be like building a car that could withstand any kind of accident. Because of the cost you probably would only sell three. Are there things that we can do to improve the system, sure and we are doing some of them now.
I am not going into Climate Change but for the last four or five years, we have seen changes in the weather patterns. What we are seeing now is either a drought or a downpour. These thunderstorms roll through and dump a lot of rain in a short period. About two weeks ago we had a storm north of here that dumped about 13 inches of rain in about 12 hours. I have never heard of such of thing outside of the tropics. We are seeing weather patterns that we have never seen before. At least they are not Countywide like the 40-day rain event we had in 1986. We also see changes in development, if you look around our lakes you often see those small cottages being torn down and replaced by 5-bedroom two-bathroom homes. The footprint is much larger. The farmers are tiling their fields and cleaning out their ditches. You know most people think that cleaning ditches is the answer, but it depends. We are cleaning our ditches and drains but that is also moving the water faster into our rivers and Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan used to be our excess runoff storage facility. But now Lake Michigan is about three feet higher so the water in the Muskegon and the White River is moving slower and remains higher longer. Now the larger drainage system doesn’t have time to recover between these big rain events. Just because you see the dust on our roads doesn’t mean the larger system is not full or can handle the runoff from these flood events. What we are seeing now is a systemic problem. We are having human development issue, drainage system issues, aging infrastructure issues, budget issues and weather issues. We can work with all these issues but the weather is the unknown factor.”
The point that I want to make is that we want to do our job which includes cleaning out the ditches in front of homeowner’s property. We are not asking homeowners to do our jobs but if they can help with the small preemptive things then we can do the big things they can’t do like patching potholes and maintaining our County roads and right of ways.
If you can’t or don’t want to that’s OK we will get there and do the job but it just may not be as timely as you would like.
We are always here and if you call with an issue we will come by and take a look at any problem. If it happens to be off the right of way or on private property, we may not get involved but will offer advice and direct you to other resources. We won’t tell you it is not our job and walks away.
Are we looking at climate change and a new weather normal in Newaygo County, or is this just an extended local weather pattern?
To be determined.
These were open and frank interviews with these three County Department heads. They all have to operate within a framework of statutes, acts, policies, and procedures. They use best practices and depend on available fact-based information for their decisions. The common theme among the three is that they are all dedicated to serving the taxpayers of Newaygo County. They appear to go beyond the limitations of their budgets in meeting the demands of their responsibility. They will readily use their time and resources to communicate, educate, and help the County taxpayers.
What they believe regarding climate change is a matter of personal opinion. They are educated, informed and situationally aware of what is going in their professional area and area of responsibility. It is my opinion that be it climate change or changes in weather patterns these three departments are ahead of the curve. I suggest that before we race to social media or the coffee shop to complain or blame them for something their departments did or did not do, we first seek to understand.
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