High Water Mark addresses flooding

From the beginning to the end of the discussion Monday afternoon, attendees at the “High Water Mark” event  were reminded of personal and community loss, and hope.  The discussion at Dow Diamond this week followed the three year anniversary of the Tittabawassee River disaster, when the dams on Wixom and Sanford Lakes were breached following a devastating rainfall. That resulted in  catastrophic flooding throughout the river's corridor.
Sponsored by the Midland Business Alliance (MBA) Advisory Committee on Infrastructure, the “High Water Mark” event focused on efforts to reduce mid-Michigan flooding and to build resiliency and water quality, and it featured the group’s efforts partnering with like-minded organizations, including the Four Lakes Task Force, the City of Midland, Midland County, and the Detroit-area team of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

According to the MBA, more than 2,500 homes were destroyed and more than $200 million in property damage was done during that single event in May 2020.

Valley Drive was one of many streets in Midland with piles of debris following the disaster in May 2020.
Described yet again by the panelists was the power of the water, not just its physical power, but its power to change lives - which was heard in 1986, 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2020 when the rivershed crested above “major flood stage” (28 feet) by the rampaging waters, and in other years when it passed “flood stage” (24 feet).

Enough, they have said collectively and collaboratively, and they presented their ideas Monday across all levels of government and community to “reduce the frequency and severity of flooding and to build greater resiliency” in mid-Michigan through infrastructure improvements and natural restoration.
The Tittabawassee River watershed is an area of land drained by the streams, creeks and tributaries of the Pine River, Chippewa River and Tobacco River that drain into the Tittabawassee River. In turn, the Tittabawassee flows into the Saginaw River and then the Saginaw Bay. 
View of the Tittabawassee River below Sanford Dam
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, it is  the fifth largest in the state and “covers 2,471 square miles, including all or even small parts of the following counties: Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Isabella, Mecosta, Midland, Montcalm, Ogemaw, Osceola, Roscommon and Saginaw.” The main stem of the Tittabawassee River is more than 90 miles long, with more than 600 miles of contributing tributaries.

Opening Monday’s event in the third floor suites area was MBA board chair Mary Draves, a Wixom Lake homeowner, who described her family’s ordeal on May 19, 2020. Tony Stamas, president and CEO of the MBA  committee co-chairs Lee Ann Keller, president of OmniTech International, and J.W. Fisher, president and CEO of the Fisher Companies, talked about progress that has already been made and about proposed flood reduction projects in the Snake Creek, Sturgeon Creek and Inman Drain areas. Stamas encourages residents to get involved, and notes information is available at MBAmi.org/FloodStudy

Keller, a 35-year resident of Midland whose present home on Sanford Lake has flooded three times, says that flood was a literal “watershed moment” for her, realizing that the community needed to be proactive and committed for the long haul, which could be ongoing for the next 20 years or more.

To date, she says, $16.4 million has been raised for various short and mid-term projects in the area including those in the three named drain areas,  MyMichigan Medical Center in Midland, engineering for second phase studies and Midland County floodplain reconnection and enhancement projects.
 Nick Zager, chief planner, Detroit District Office U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, spoke at the High Water Mark event.
Nick Zager, chief of planning for the Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who earned the admiration of the local contingent at the very least, saying that after having worked with many sponsoring partners during his 22 years with the Corps, called the local collaborators “the best group of people ever” in their efforts to reduce the legacy flooding in the area. Their ability to work together with all stakeholders has cut years, he says, off the complicated, two-stage process of securing congressional approval and funding for major water resource projects.

According to the MBA Advisory Committee on Infrastructure, it initially raised $870,000 from private and community organizations to get the ball rolling in conjunction with Midland County and the Corps. Called a Planning Assistance to States (PAS) study, and with GIS data supplied by MBA consultant Spicer Group, the Corps in what it calls its “largest modeling project undertaken by the Corps’ Detroit District ”will show current/existing conditions and where flooding would occur under many different rain/ground saturation conditions; help engineers determine where - and how much - potential flood water detention is needed to reduce the impact of flooding; and be integral to predicting how a potential solution would impact the watershed.” This study, called a hydraulic/hydrologic study, is scheduled for completion in 2024.

Zager says that information will be included and used to determine the scope of the second phase study, called a General Investigations Study. That study will compare options to achieve long-term goals outlined by the various local groups and by the PAS study. 

Fisher noted that times - and climate - has changed since 1986 when his father, Jim Fisher, one of the builders of Fisher Sand and Gravel, called the major flooding a “one off,” a once-in-a-100-year event.

“Had we started then, we wouldn’t be here now,” Fisher notes, explaining his work on fundraising for the projects while also noting how the legacy effects of the pernicious flooding weighed heavily on local decision making.

He and Keller explained that to date since 2021, the MBA committee has experienced an 18.7 to 1 dollar return on local investment, and fundraising continues. Fisher and Zager also noted that going forward, the committee in conjunction with local legislators, has realized an agreement with the federal government to work with only a 10 percent local match which will save $3 million in construction match funding.

View of Sanford Dam, May 2023
Dave Kepler, president of the Four Lakes Task Force, says restoration on the Secord and Smallwood dams has already begun and permits are near complete after reworking Edenville and Sanford, with construction expected to begin this year. The sustainable run-of-the river, recreational-based dams have improved safety features with larger spillways and with a goal of being self-sufficient. The Four Lakes Task Force information is readily available at its website fourlakestaskforce.org
 View of lakebed-Wixom Lake, May 2023
The afternoon concluded with a panel discussion on the watershed health and a question-and-answer session of speakers. Talking about the importance of eco-sensitive flood reduction solutions were representatives from  Little Forks Conservancy, Chippewa Nature Center, Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network (WIN), Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and Omni Tech International.

Words from Midland Mayor Maureen Donker concluded the event. Echoing the panelists, and residents, she said, “We can no longer kick the can down the road. It is too important for our community.” 
Patti Lachance, a representative from AMPM, says the agency put together a video for those who could not attend the event, and it is available on MCTV and on the MBAmi.org/FloodStudy webpage.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Ralph E. Wirtz.

Ralph E. Wirtz is a native Midlander who retired from the Midland Daily News as a managing editor in 2015. He has been freelancing since then in between traveling and volunteering. He has four adult children, all who graduated from Bullock Creek High School as he did. He is an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and a Central Michigan University grad. He can be reached at ralphewirtz@gmail.com.