By Howard Meyerson
It’s taken three dam mishaps and several years of legal wrangling for good sense to finally prevail about the Song of the Morning Ranch/ Lansing Club dam on the Pigeon River, a state designated Wild-Scenic River and one Michigan’s finer blue-ribbon trout streams which runs through Otsego and Cheboygan counties.
The dam there will be coming out, perhaps next year, and the pond behind it is being drawn down in preparation for that momentous event. I am glad to see progress being made. The Pigeon River and its fisheries have suffered far too much insult because of the dam.
You may have read last April that a settlement was hammered out between the state and Golden Lotus Inc., which operates the Song of the Morning Ranch, the yoga camp at the dam site. Golden Lotus was fined $120,000 for mitigation of the effects of its most recent 2008 silt spill from the dam, a catastrophic event that killed an estimated 450,000 trout. The agreement calls for a permanent draw down of pond waters behind it. That process got underway in late May.
A collaborative agreement on restoration of the river, between Golden Lotus Inc., Trout Unlimited and the Pigeon River Country Association also calls for deconstruction and removal of the dam and the building a bridge over the river, Phase II of the project.
“The plan is to slowly draw the impoundment down through this summer and fall,” explains Lisha Ramsdell, the Phase II project manager with Huron Pines, a conservation and resource development non-profit in Gaylord that was contracted to be the Phase II project leader. It will manage dam removal and construction of the bridge.
“We’ll be working through the winter to get a permit and construction contractor and get them lined up for dam removal in 2015 ideally,” Ramsdell said.
The Lansing Club Dam, named for the organization that owned the property before Golden Lotus, has been a concern for years, even beyond the catastrophic events,
according to state fisheries officials. The Pigeon River is a great trout stream, but trout need cold, clean water to thrive.
The impoundment behind the dam allowed waters to be warmed by the sun. Running the dam’s turbines for electricity required storing water in the pond and releasing it periodically. Those releases negatively impacted downstream trout populations for decades by reducing survival of young trout and/or spawning success, according to state fisheries managers.
“Everyone thinks it’s just that they opened the gates and released a ton of silty water (in 2008),” said Tim Cwalinski, a senior fish biologist from the Michigan DNR’s Gaylord office. “But they did that for years when they ran their turbines.”
The Pigeon River is looking pretty good these days, according to Cwalinski. The waters downstream are somewhat silty, expected given the slow, steady drawdown procedure that involves removing one 4-inch stop-log from the dam every three days. That procedure is being monitored and directed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The dam had 25 stop-logs in all. Cwalinski has been fielding calls from downstream residents who have complained about the murkiness.
“This process isn’t without some pain,” he said. “The river (above the dam) is still chewing its way down through the silt (that built up in the pond). But I think the worst is over.”
Draining the pond and removing the dam is expected to restore about 1 mile of the river to its natural state and flow. That, in turn, will mean colder water temperatures, perhaps all the way down to Mullett Lake.
“We’ll have more year-round trout water when this is gone,” Cwalinski said.
Removing the dam will also mean more fish passage, for native trout and steelhead which will be able to move into those upstream waters. It will also mean passage of sea lamprey. The river is treated for them now. That treatment is likely to become more extensive. But overall, the Pigeon is on a path to recovery.
“I get excited about the fact that the dam will be gone,” Cwalinski shared. “We will have water that is more suitable for trout downstream in June and July. We expect to see more (bugs) and better reproduction of brook trout, brown trout and steelhead. The Pigeon is really a healthy river except for one thing – and this has been it.”
And, before too long, that “it” will be gone.
This column appears on MLive Outdoors.