Boardman River washout: fish, wildlife impacts not serious

Brown Bridge Dam is the site of the washout in October. A few feet of water remains behind the dam.
Photo by John Russell

By Howard Meyerson

Wildlife and fish habitat on the Boardman River was hit hard by a five foot deep surge of water on October 6 when a 20-foot draw-down of Brown Bridge Dam pond got out of control. State and other officials studying the aftermath say they do not anticipate any serious long-term fish or wildlife losses, but the six-hour flash flood did change some of the landscape.

“I am expecting some impact on wetlands, but those are going to be minimal. There was a natural floodplain downstream of the dam,” said Todd Kalish, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources representative on the Brown Bridge Dam implementation team.

“We don’t expect any impact on mammals along the river. There have been some stranded turtles that were rescued. Some fish were rescued too. There is a bald eagle out on Brown Bridge Pond that is still flying around having a field day (eating dead fish), the same with the otters and raccoons.”

Brown Bridge Dam is being removed to restore the natural flow in the upper Boardman River. It is the first of four dams that will either be removed or modified in an effort to restore the river to a more natural state. The draw-down was the first step in the dam deconstruction process.

Downstream fish and wildlife assessments are underway. Kalish and other officials say those results will be available in November.

Dead fish were prominent after the flood, according to Chuck Lombardo, the spokesman for the implementation team. Most, he said, were warm water species: bluegill, bass, pike and walleye.

“Most of those were fish from the pond which was warm water,” Lombardo said. “And as the river returned to being a cold water stream, those species wouldn’t have survived.

The river returns to its original channel upstream from the dam where a pond had been created by damming the river 90 years ago.

“We did get reports of dead trout being found and I have heard of a trout kill, but the results aren’t in yet.

“Our primary concern is the release of all that sediment and the impact that could have on the fishery.”

The amount of sediment lost has not been determined yet. What is known is that between 115,000 and 150,000 cubic yards were removed from the site prior to the breach, according to Lombardo. Another 25,000 cubic yards still has to be removed. Three feet of water still remains behind the dam and that will be removed once permits are issued from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Sand from the washout settled out in the upper half-mile immediately downstream of the dam, according to various officials, but fine silt suspended in the water is being carried much further downstream.

“The water is really turbid now and we can’t see the bottom,” said Steve Largent, the Boardman River Program Coordinator with the Grand Traverse Conservation District.  “(During the event) I saw a cottontail rabbit on a person’s deck surrounded by water, but I think wildlife was able to take refuge quickly enough. I don’t think this was any different than any other big storm event.”

The surge of river water occurred during the draw-down  Water began to flow around the temporary structure built to control the flow. The pond dropped approximately 17 feet in just six hours. The draw-down was to be limited to 12 inches per day for 18 to 20 days.

The flood pushed woody debris out of the river and into bridges and up on the floodplain, according Largent. That rise was similar to a 1986 flood from heavy rains, though the river came up slowly then.

“It could have been much worse,” Largent said.

Kalish, the DNR’s Lake Michigan basin coordinator said the sediment moving downstream may be good for the river habitat. It will introduce new organic material into areas that were “organically starved.”

“That material will be a benefit to cold-water fisheries,” Kalash said. “The material may boost aquatic insect populations.

“ I’ve walked down through there and saw a lot of the sand was deposited on the flood plain. In the river channel there is still gravel and good spawning habitat. I have a feeling we will see brown and brook trout populations there. Fish are already utilizing the river.

“I think our (trout) surveys will turn out to show very similar age classes of brown trout as in 2010. But I am not sure what it will show in terms of abundance.”

Copyright © 2012 Howard Meyerson

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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8 Responses to Boardman River washout: fish, wildlife impacts not serious

  1. David Wermuth says:

    The Sturgeon river dam failure comes to mind. But the reports are much different. How does this compare? Why is this downplayed and the other dam failure so tragic?


  2. David: I am not familiar with a failure on the Sturgeon River and which Sturgeon R do you mean? I know of one on the Pigeon River which has happened several times. The concerns there over the years has been a mix of things, including impact on trout, heavy silt loads and deliberate actions on the part of the owners. The final results were not in on the Brown Bridge situation. I will follow-up as they come out. One thing that may mitigate the situation is that a lot of silt had already been removed behind Brown Bridge Dam. But the silt question was still unanswered when I made calls.


  3. markie obrien says:

    I have a bridge in Brooklyn for you.
    So the powers that be, know that the fish aren’t undernourished. The powers that be, know that it’s been a rollicking successful spawn for the non-native Brown Trout. Can’t imagine the number of fish that were standed but the coons, coyotes and possum were grateful. The whole idea of the Boardman being a “Natural River” is a joke, the Boardman Drain is more like it with Orvis, the Paddle Club and Breach Largent and his cohorts more interested a clear sailing recreational creek than a naturally snag filled system. And it’s not like the DNR fisheries folks could care more if the toxins in Lake Michigan are transported into the system.
    Way too many fingers in the pie and not enough science, not to mention common sense.


  4. I agree completely…as I sit here watching the Boardman River flow by, so dark and nasty looking, and wonder how you people ever came up with such an idea to restore a beautiful free running river with a beautiful pond, full of fun fish to catch with the grandchildren…. to its natural state ? THATS WHAT IS WAS !!
    You’d better reconsider any further attempts of doing anymore desruction of the envirement….for what? Government money and jobs for individuals that couldn’t see this happening..after being warned by several hydrogeoligists that offered free advise ? Goodbye, downtown Traverse City. I see a class action lawsuite in the making, and I hope all the homeowners that have lost this river and its property values diminish, get what they deserve financially for the gross negligence that has ocurred. Try to fix what they’ve destoryed and leave it alone.


    • Barb: I am not sure what you mean when you say “you people.”


      • Barbara Reneaud says:

        Sorry, ( smartphone error)….Amec, DEQ, etc. If you would like the true story behind this please private message me and I can give you contacts and my attorneys name. We also hold meetings once a week, for support as well as sharing each others dealings with the adjusters, etc. The article you wrote was very well written, but lacked the truth. The worst is yet to come ~


      • Barb: my email is I’d be interested in seeing what you have. My story is about the impacts on fisheries and wildlife only. I knew of the issues pertaining to homes and property, but that story was not intended to deal with any of that.


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