Or... Open-Heart Surgery with Backhoe
Photos and story by Charles Chandler.
It is about 10:00 AM on a Tuesday and several onlookers are standing on a big pile of dirt at the intersection of Walnut and 24th street supervising a very important project. Although after morning coffee and daily news, this spoil bank feels like an island in a different world. Hurricanes are ripping through the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of migrating birds are dying across the southwest. Everything west of the Rockies is a blazing inferno with immeasurable loss of life and property. The arctic is recording 100-degree temperatures and huge bomb craters are appearing in the Siberian tundra. The glaciers and sea ice are melting faster than predicted. The global Corvid-19 pandemic and partisan politics rage on. All of these events are backlit by dire predictions about Global Warming. It all feels like a sweaty high fever dream.
But here at this Newaygo County road intersection, it is a cool Michigan morning, there is a tiny warbler hunting insects in a bush near the side of the road. There is a bit of fall color beginning to show among the thick green pine and spruce. The small clear spring-fed creek that is getting all the attention is gurgling along a few feet away. We are all oblivious to the world’s troubles and are mesmerized by the activity in front of us. This morning the Newaygo County Road Commission crew is installing a huge box culvert on this small Bigelow Creek tributary.
The healthy young men in bright green safety vests laugh and joke as they work with a rigger and the guy in the cab of a giant yellow crane to carefully maneuver massive concrete Lego blocks into place. This huge box culvert is replacing the original rusty 46-inch metal tube lying over in the far ditch. At first glance, this seems like a bit of overreach.
Not so, as this culvert replacement is part of a very important and ongoing collaboration to restore the viability and potential of the Bigelow Creek watershed. What is so special about the Bigelow and this project? A bunch to be sure. This is a big Newaygo County Project that has many, many benefits to the fishes and creatures that live in and along the creek and to the residents of Newaygo County and beyond. It is incredibly important to local and regional fishermen and the general economy of the County.
Bigelow Creek is a tributary to the Muskegon River, and the entire subwatershed lies in Newaygo County. It originates just a couple of miles southeast of White Cloud, flows generally south for approximately 15.7 miles before joining the Muskegon River about a half-mile above Henning Park. For those not familiar with this beloved stream, Bigelow Creek and all tributaries are Type 1 trout streams, mostly intact, and contain healthy self-sustaining populations of Brook, Brown and Rainbow Trout, (Steelhead), and Chinook, and Coho Salmon along with many other small fish and invertebrates. What this means to trout, steelhead, and salmon fishermen is the Bigelow is a fish nursery and produces large numbers of beautiful sporting fish for them to pursue.
To me and other recreationalists who have lived in the dry hot brown places or traveled to Newaygo County from the thick midwestern cities to fish, paddle, camp, and hike along the Bigelow it is a modern miracle. A true sign that the Almighty loves us and wants us to be happy.
So why the open-heart surgery that is going on down in the big ditch in front of us? In human terms, the Bigelow has been suffering from a bad case of clogged arteries.
The guy that this Near North Now correspondent has been waiting for has arrived and has agreed to tell that story. His name is Jeremy Geist and his title is Great Lakes Stream Restoration Manager for Trout Unlimited (TU). TU is a national nonprofit organization that was founded here by Michiganders to help conserve, protect, and restore cold-water trout streams. He is the project lead, coalition manager, and cat herder on the Bigelow Creek Watershed restoration project. His is an awesome responsibility because the outcome of this important project will impact the Bigelow Creek natural processes and its biological contribution to the larger Muskegon River and the economics of Newaygo County.
According to Jeremy in 2016 a coalition of partners organized a project to improve the road-stream crossings in the Bigelow Creek watershed. These partners included Trout Unlimited, Newaygo County Road Commission, United States Forest Service (USFS), Michigan, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) the Muskegon County Conservation District, and the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly.
“We met with the Road Commission and other partners to prioritize the work. We looked for those overlapping opportunities that could improve the Biglow Watershed and the Newaygo County road system. After some deliberating eight or nine different road-stream crossings were selected for culvert replacement. This year we will replace culverts four and five.”
These eight or nine culverts were typically installed 50 plus years ago and were either too small or in the wrong place. Over time, several not so good things happened to the stream processes. These undersized culverts allowed sand and sediment to build on the upside of the culvert further reducing the streamflow. Then during a heavy rain event, the water pressure would increase, kind of like putting your thumb over the end of your garden hose. This fast-moving water would jet out of the culvert and wash a hole out in the stream bed on the downside of the culvert. This lowered the water level and created a “perched” culvert. This gap between culvert and stream stopped the fishes and other organisms from migrating upstream. This reduced the production and potential of the entire Bigelow Creek watershed.
Kind of like we seniors that have overtime eaten a semi-truck load of brats, bacon, bread, barbeque, beer, and cinnamon rolls. Our arteries have clogged up and a little sediment has collected around our waist, backside, and other places. We have lost a little potential and can’t make that 50-yard dash to catch the football or sprint down the court for that perfect layup or walk for a couple hours hunting grouse in the Michigan thickets. You get the picture.
Additionally, if the rain event was big enough the stream would overtop the roadways and this would generate phone calls to the County Road Commissioner, Emergency Services, and the Road Commission.
The logic for the big box culvert becomes apparent as Jeremy and others explain that now we frequently get bigger rain events, that is, more rain falling faster which results in a faster runoff in the watershed. The benefits for these large replacement culverts are many since they improve drainage and our County roadways while reconnecting important sections of the Bigelow watershed. These projects also have an immediate benefit to the local economy. The Great Lake Restoration initiative disburses about 300 million a year to restoration projects like this one. These projects also deliver an infusion of money to the local economy and taxpayers. The Road Commission offsets some of their cost and use local contractors and buy materials locally whenever possible.
For we fishermen, they are a beautiful thing indeed because they facilitate fish passage upstream to prime spawning grounds and ensuring the sustainability of the variety of game and nongame fish in the watershed and the Muskegon River.
Jeremy discussed the project status and schedule for other culvert replacements. These legacy culverts have been replaced on the East Branch of Bigelow Creek at Spruce Ave. (2017) and at 40th St. (2018), and Bigelow Creek at 40th St. (2018). Two Walnut Ave crossings are scheduled this year. The 58th St. crossing and the West Branch at 40th St is scheduled for 2021. The final replacement on Croton Dr is scheduled for 2022. The money for this project comes from a quilt work of federal and state competitive grants from the United States Forest Service "Sustain Our Great Lakes" the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, Great Lake Restoration initiative, Fremont Area Community Foundation, and In-kind and cash matches from the Newaygo County Road Commission and some Townships.”
He summed up the interview stating that TU and the collations partner's goal is to restore the viability and the quality of the wetlands and waters for all the inhabitants that complete their life cycle in the Bigelow watershed. By removing these legacy culverts on these road crossings and replacing them with these big box culverts we will give these streams the opportunity to become more efficient and the fishes and other inhabitants more space to do what they need to do.
We both needed to get back to that pile of dirt so that we can continue supervising the Road Commission Crew. And another thing, we locals need to give these guys a break and quit complaining when they have the road blocked off and we have to make a short detour around one of their important projects. They are doing good legitimate work. Don’t know if you have noticed but during this pandemic and all the complications, they have completed a bunch of road projects in our County. Some folks appreciated their work because some nice family of onlookers brought the crew so donuts to share.
But back to the Armageddon that I mentioned earlier. Most of that craziness and chaos going on around the country is not happening here in the beautiful woods, water, and fertile farmlands that is Newaygo County. It should be apparent how important our local natural environment like this gem of a watershed is for resources, recreational opportunity and our economy. This is evident by the uptick in the regional real estate market and the increasing numbers of seasonal residents and recreationalist. We must make every effort to conserve, protect, and restore these precious cold-water trout streams. If these recreational assets are protected and managed, they could be an economic engine for Newaygo County.
According to the American Sportfishing Association. “Sports fishing ranks second after jogging as the most popular human recreational activity. America’s anglers are estimated to spend $49.8 billion per year in retail sales associated with their sport. With a total annual economic impact of $125 billion, fishing supports more than 800,000 jobs and generates $38 billion in wages and $16 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. If sportfishing was its own corporation, it would rank #54 on the Fortune 500 List, ahead of Cisco Systems. Over twice as many people fished in 2016 than attended all NFL games combined.”
We also so need these woods and waters to keep us sane. During our recent Pandemic shutdown recreational access to our rivers, streams and trails were first to be reopened. Many families used these to recreational opportunities to cope with some very uncertain times.
There are many compelling arguments for funding similar projects in other area watersheds like the Bigelow. We all must take every opportunity to conserve, protect, and restore these precious Newaygo County cold-water trout streams.
Content contributors were Mr. Kelly Smith Road Commission Consultant, Mr. Jeremy Geist, Great Lakes Stream Restoration Manager for Trout Unlimited and Mr. Mark A. Tonello, DNR Fisheries Management Biologist.
Letter to the Editor Policy
Near North Now welcomes original letters from readers on current topics of general interest. Simply fill out the form below. Letters submissions are limited to 300 words.