By Howard Meyerson
Grand Rapids, Mich. – It took more than 100 years and three major mishaps, but the Pigeon River is free-flowing once again. The Song of the Morning Yoga Retreat dam was removed this fall. Deep in the heart of the Pigeon River Country State Forest east of Vanderbilt, the state designated Wild-Scenic River is now etching its way back into its historic streambed.
“Aaahh, finally,” declares Tim Cwalinski, senior fisheries biologist at the Michigan DNR’s Gaylord office. “A removal like this is a watershed moment in a career. Certain dams are limiting factors on fisheries and aquatic habitat. The Song of the Morning (SOM) dam was one of those.
“This next spring we will get steelhead moving up from Mullett Lake. They spawn throughout the lower river. Those that (once) put the brakes on at the dam will now go upstream where they have been absent forever. There are going to be some competitive forces playing out with brook trout and brown trout, but we’ll watch to see what happens there.”
Deconstruction of the dam began October 27, 2015 and took about week to complete, according to Lisha Ramsdell, the Phase II project manager with Huron Pines, a conservation and resource development non-profit in Gaylord that was contracted to oversee the project. Phase I involved permanently drawing down the impoundment behind it in 2014 as part of a settlement agreement between the state and Golden Lotus Inc., which has owned and operated the property since 1969. The company was fined $120,000 to mitigate the effects of a 2008 silt spill from the dam, a catastrophic event that killed an estimated 450,000 trout.
Three dam failures
It was the third time such a mishap occurred in just over 50 years. The first occurred in 1957, according to historical records when an earthen dam built by then owners, The Lansing Club, failed and flooded the river causing a major fish kill. The dam was then replaced with a concrete dam, and the property was later acquired by Golden Lotus, which experienced another dam failure in 1984.
The dam’s removal and the construction of a new bridge over the river, work still underway, was spelled out in a collaborative restoration agreement between Golden Lotus Inc., Trout Unlimited and the Pigeon River Country Association after the most recent spill.
“It’s fantastic to see. It’s been a lot of hard work for a lot of people,” Ramsdell said. “Within days you could see a gravel bottom right at the dam site. There is still a lot of work ahead and the river will continue to find its path (upstream from the former dam), but that’s what we are doing it for.
A problem for fisheries
The Song of the Morning dam has been a thorn in side of fishery managers for decades. Peaking operations at the functioning hydro-electric dam often caused fish kills and destabilized trout habitat downstream, though not to the degree of the major spills, according to Cwalinski. The impoundment behind it also warmed river waters, raising temperatures downstream by three to five degrees for a mile when they were released.
Those temperature problems were resolved when the dam was permanently opened in 2014, Cwalinski said. He expects trout fishing will improve and those improvements will be noticed considerably further downstream.
“We will now have a more stable stream environment and I expect we will see more bugs and better reproduction for brook trout and brown trout,” Cwalinski said. “The Pigeon has not been stocked (with trout) and we have no plans to stock it. It doesn’t really need it. It’s been a very healthy river except for one thing – and that is now gone. We should have water that is suitable for trout downstream in July and August. There is going to be more year-round trout water.”
The dam deconstruction and bridge building effort is expected to cost approximately $365,000, according to Ramsdell. A $295,000 DNR Aquatic Habitat grant covered most of the expense. The rest comes from anonymous donors and a $5,000 gift from the Mullett Lake Area Preservation Society. The Pigeon River empties into Mullett Lake.
“We will be aggressively monitoring the (former pond) area for invasive species,” Ramsdell said. “The dam removal was the most important thing and it’s creating beautiful meadow habitat (upstream).”
© 2015 Howard Meyerson
Appears in Michigan Outdoor News.