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Saving the Kalamazoo River

This bucolic view of the Kalamazoo River gives few hints of the river’s degradation. Photo by Brian K. Powers
Myriad agencies, groups working to restore watershed

An aquatic offspring of pure waters released by glaciers 12,000 years ago, the Kalamazoo River is one of Southwest Michigan’s most defining geological features.

Covering more than 2,000 square miles and including all or parts of 10 counties, the Kalamazoo River Watershed has been many things to those who live within it. To indigenous people, the river is intricately connected to their culture and identity. To early white settlers, it was a magnet. To industries that ultimately came with those settlers, it was a critical component of business.

Yet for decades the river was treated as a dispensable resource, polluted by those who used it. The detriments to it included raw sewage, industrial discharges, carcinogenic chemicals and dams, causing much damage to the water, the riverbanks, the floodplains, the biota and humans. And the river has faced additional degradation in very recent history from an oil spill and a dam drawdown that caused excessive sediment to be released into the river.

But the river has not been forsaken. Spearheaded by many organizations on the federal, state and local levels, efforts began in earnest a few decades ago to repair the river. And just as collective messes led to the river’s degradation, it is going to take a collaborative effort and many, many decades to restore the mighty Kalamazoo.

The river’s human history

The Potawatomi say, “Bmadzewen yawen I mbish,” meaning “Water is life.” To tribal members, it is “the substance that supports life, our path on Grandmother Earth.” When the Potawatomi migrated west from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean more than 1,000 years ago, they followed the prophesies of their creation story: “Go to the place where food grows on water.” In the Kalamazoo River Watershed, they found that food: mnomen, or wild rice. They also found sustenance in freshwater lake sturgeon that swam in the river.

In 1620, the first Europeans to paddle the Great Lakes arrived, and Michigan’s first settlements followed, at Sault Ste. Marie in 1668 and St. Ignace in 1671. The Mission of St. Joseph was established on the St. Joseph River in what is now Niles in 1684.

By signing the first Treaty of Chicago on Aug. 29, 1821, leaders of the Ottawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi people ceded to the U.S. 5 million acres in the Michigan Territory south of the Grand River, except for several small reservations. In 1838, U.S. soldiers forcibly moved many of the Potawatomi from southwestern Michigan to Kansas in what is known as the Potawatomi Trail of Death.

At the same time, the influx of white settlers along the Kalamazoo River and its tributaries began: Titus Bronson built his first cabin near Arcadia Creek in Kalamazoo in 1829. Marshall and Saugatuck were founded in 1830, Battle Creek in 1831, Albion in 1833, and Allegan in 1838. It was only a matter of time before development would become a detriment to the Kalamazoo River.

Paper and PCBs

With abundant nearby forests and waterways as power sources, the area became a natural — and lucrative — spot for industry. And with industrial development came dams. Constructed where the current was fast, the first dams were built in the 1830s to power grain mills and sawmills. Such dams continued to be built until 1900. From 1890 to 1940, larger dams were built to generate electricity. Until 1980, some dams were built to control lake levels for recreation and waterfront development.


• OU 1—Allied Paper Property/Bryant Mill Pond Area (south of East Cork Street between South Burdick Street and Portage Road);
• OU 2—Willow Boulevard and A-Site Landfill (32 acres near the intersection of Lake Street and Olmstead Road);
• OU 3—King Highway Landfill (23 acres at the intersection of King Highway and East Michigan Avenue);
• OU 4—12th Street Landfill (in Plainwell, north of M-89 where 12th Street ends at the Kalamazoo River);
• OU 5—Portage Creek and Kalamazoo River sediments;
• OU 7—Plainwell Mill (on M-89 west of Main Street in downtown Plainwell).

Note: There is no OU 6; that designation was left as a placeholder for possible future parts of the Superfund site.

Because OU 5 is large and complex, the EPA has further divided that OU into seven areas. Each is separated by a dam.

Source: US EPA Superfund program

There are more than 100 dams in the Kalamazoo River Watershed that are registered with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). Thirteen of these are on the river’s main stem, with many unregistered, smaller dams on its tributaries.

No industry enjoyed more prosperity from use of the waterways than papermaking, which flourished for nearly 100 years after the Kalamazoo Paper Co. was built on the banks of the river in 1867. Paper mills thrived thanks to immigrant labor, proximity to Detroit and Chicago, railroads to transport the product and waterways that provided water for the papermaking process and a handy drain to wash away the waste.

Bryant Paper Co. began operating in Kalamazoo in 1895, and the King Paper Co. in 1901. By 1902, paper mills also were operating alongside the river in Plainwell and Otsego. In 1909, Jacob Kindleberger established yet another paper-producing facility, the Kalamazoo Vegetable Parchment Co., by the river north of Kalamazoo. Mills were also built along waterways in Vicksburg, Three Rivers, Watervliet and White Pigeon.

The invention of carbonless paper in 1953, which was met with great praise from typists who no longer had use inky carbon sheets to make multiple copies of documents, created a new opportunity for the paper mills, which began recycling the paper to make new stock.

Kalamazoo’s mill operators may have thought they were helping the environment by de-inking and recycling carbonless paper rather than harvesting virgin timber to make pulp, but the paper contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a carcinogen, the environmental impact of which was not fully known at the time.

The mills deposited PCB-contaminated paper residue in landfills on the Kalamazoo River’s banks. The Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, a nonprofit organization focused on improving and protecting the health of the watershed, estimates that more than 120,000 pounds of PCBs and millions of cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediments were contained in these disposal areas. The runoff from the areas created large repositories of contaminated sediments behind the dams, most specifically the Plainwell Dam, Otsego City and Township dams, Trowbridge Dam and Lake Allegan Dam.

Sounding the alarm

In 1985, the Lower Kalamazoo River was designated an Area of Concern (AOC) by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a U.S.-Canadian entity established to protect water in the Great Lakes Basin. The IJC found eight “environmental degradations,” or Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs), which, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cause “a change in (the river’s) chemical, physical, or biological integrity.”

These include loss of fish and wildlife habitat, degradation of fish and wildlife populations, restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, and bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems, in addition to degradation of the waterway’s aesthetics.

The presence of PCBs as well as per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) in the river led the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to issue “limited” consumption or “do not eat” advisories for most fish species in the Kalamazoo River downstream from Comstock.

Perhaps most damning, in 1990 the EPA gave the Kalamazoo River AOC the infamous status as a Superfund site, a designation given to locations polluted with hazardous materials. This designation, though, may have been the hazmat-clad white knight the river needed.

A Superfund designation allows the EPA to force parties responsible for contamination to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work, with the goal of returning the site to productive use.

Officially known as the Allied Paper Inc./Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River Superfund site, it includes five mill disposal areas, five paper mill properties, 80 miles of the Kalamazoo River from Morrow Lake Dam to Lake Michigan, and the three miles of Portage Creek. The entirety of the site has been divided into six cleanup projects known as operable units (OUs) (see graphic).

Cleanup is no small task. It requires removal of millions and millions of cubic feet of contaminated soil and sediments, and to do so means changing the course and structure of the river, starting with the dams.

Removing dams

While having served a purpose in the past, the many dams in the watershed are now viewed as detrimental, according to John Riley, an environmental quality specialist in EGLE’s Water Resources Division. “Dams fragment habitat, and most of the dams on the Kalamazoo River serve no purpose,” he says.

In addition to accumulating debris and contaminated sediments, dams also disrupt fish migration, negatively affect aquatic animal and plant life, and raise water temperatures in the impoundments.

Dams with hydroelectric turbines can kill or injure fish and wildlife that attempt to pass through or over them.

A pivotal part of the Kalamazoo River Superfund cleanup is the removal of many of these dams. According to a 2022 U.S. Geological Survey report, multiple dams on the river are in various stages of removal, and “restoration work will be completed in the coming years.”

If one were to float the river today, one would see evidence of this work.

In the Upper Kalamazoo, the area of the river from its headwaters west to Morrow Lake, near Galesburg, “there’s actually quite a long stretch of pretty naturalized river, including passages through Fort Custer State Recreation Area and land conservancy properties,” according to Matt Diana, fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

In downtown Battle Creek, the river’s course is controlled by a concrete channel, but some of that has been removed and replaced with natural rock embankments, parks and floodplains.
On the Lower Kalamazoo, the Plainwell Dam was removed in 2010 and the Otsego Township Dam in 2018.

In Marshall, a dam owned by Consumers Energy generates a small amount of electricity but has a high cost of maintenance and needs repairs, according to Diana, who says the DNR will “help get grants to remove it.”

The dams that remain include Morrow Lake Dam, a hydroelectric facility; Plainwell No. 2 Dam, a water diversion dam; Otsego City Dam; Trowbridge Dam; Allegan Dam, in downtown Allegan; and Calkins Dam, an active hydroelectric facility that creates Lake Allegan.

Constructed in 1898 by Consumers Energy, Trowbridge Dam was one of seven built to supply power to paper mills and municipalities along the river. Equipped with the first long transmission line in Michigan, the dam was to provide hydroelectric power for a newly installed streetlight system in Kalamazoo, 24 miles to the southeast.

“There was a single generator at Trowbridge. They flipped it on, and three or four hours later somebody rode to the dam site on horseback, saying, ‘The lights are on.’ He came all the way from Kalamazoo,” says Mark Mills, Southwest Region manager of the Michigan DNR’s Wildlife Division. “This just goes to show that they weren’t really sure how the dam was going to work.”

Such stories, Mills says, generate sentimentality about dams and mixed feelings about removing them.

“The earliest (dams) have been here a long time. People grew up with them. They hold an important part of people’s personal history.”

The Allegan Dam, for example, is a historical component of that city. Its removal would be “a big undertaking,” says Allegan City Manager Joel Dye, and a decision to do so would be made “with all kinds of education.” He says the benefits would include “positive recreational activity, improved access to the riverfront, and being able to paddle from the Trowbridge Dam all the way to Lake Allegan.” He says Allegan residents are “cautiously optimistic” and in favor of removing the dam “if the results are something they’ll be proud of.”

The difficulty of removing the dams is compounded by the contaminated sediments accumulated behind them. These must be removed or stabilized before a dam can be taken out, lest they be released and pollute an area downstream.

The steps to removing a dam, implemented by the EPA are: first, eliminate ongoing sources of contamination, including exposed paper wastes along the riverbanks and in floodplain soils; second, remediate in-stream sediments behind the dams; and third, remove the dam structure.

Dan Peabody, an environmental quality analyst in EGLE’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division and the state’s representative to the Kalamazoo River Superfund site, says that even though the river was listed as a Superfund site in 1990, “the project languished for a while, and large-scale projects were not getting done early on. There were a lot of building blocks that needed to be done first. Now there is a lot of physical work going on, a lot of earth moving, a lot of remediation. We’re starting to see the fruits of our labor.”

Since 1998, 470,000 cubic yards of contaminated material have been removed from the Kalamazoo River Superfund site, 12 miles of the river and its banks have been restored, and 82 acres of contaminated material have been capped and locked away to prevent further contamination, according to the EPA.

EPA and EGLE have cleaned up four of six specific sites, or operable units: Willow Boulevard/A-Site Landfill, near the intersection of Lake Street and Olmstead Road; King Highway Landfill, at the intersection of the highway and Michigan Avenue; 12th Street Landfill, in Plainwell; and the paper mill site in Plainwell.

Peabody says cleanup of the Allied Paper Landfill, between Cork and Alcott streets in Kalamazoo, began in 2020 and will be completed around 2025. The cleanup of the Lower Kalamazoo, plus part of Portage Creek, will require more than a decade to complete, he says.

PCBs have been removed from Verburg Park Pond, between Gull Road and East Paterson Street, and the heavy removal equipment has moved a quarter mile to a half mile downstream, the efforts readily visible as one drives along Riverview Drive. Verburg Park remains closed and used as a staging area.

Boat traffic is still permitted throughout the length of the river, but boaters and paddlers should, of course, steer clear of the big machinery.

Oil and mud

PCBs and PFAS have not been the only substances to foul the Kalamazoo.

On July 28, 2010, Pipeline 6B, owned and maintained by Enbridge Inc. of Calgary, Canada, ruptured in wetlands near Marshall. The 6-foot break spilled approximately one million gallons of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek and adversely affected 38 downstream miles of the Kalamazoo River. The river level was high at the time, enabling the oil to penetrate riverbanks and floodplain wetlands.

As a result, the use of the river for fishing, recreational and foraging purposes was prohibited until June 2012. This oil spill was particularly detrimental to the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, since the entire Kalamazoo River Watershed lies within the NHBP’s traditional territory and tribal members rely upon the river, its tributaries and floodplains for medicine, spiritual nourishment and sustenance from the wild rice that grows naturally in the waterways.

“I saw the spill on the news as I was going to work. That’s how I was notified,” says John Rodwan, NHBP environmental department director. “I didn’t have a grasp of the magnitude of that spill, but I came to work thinking, ‘How are we going to respond to this?’ Our council had to convene. It became a mission.

“My phone was literally ringing off the hook. Government agencies, including the Justice Department, were asking, ‘What does the tribe want? How could we assist?’ We were totally unprepared for anything of this magnitude. We had no baseline.”

Rodwan says the tribe knew it shared its area with pipelines but didn’t know much more than that, a plight that Michelle DeLong, environmental quality analyst for EGLE’s Water Resources Division, understands.

“While they (the lines) were clearly marked as pipeline areas, many people in Marshall and the surrounding communities just didn’t have a working understanding of how oil products are transported and how close they are to their communities or where they are within their communities,” DeLong says.

Enbridge reported 843,444 gallons of oil was released, while the EPA estimated recovered oil at nearly 1.2 million gallons, plus oil components that evaporated or dispersed prior to collection. The Line 6B leak is ranked as one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history.

For three months after the spill, hundreds of boats and thousands of workers deployed booms and removed oil-covered sediment and vegetation. The Talmadge Creek corridor was almost completely excavated, according to the Watershed Council. Where oil had sunk to the river bottom, the sediment was dredged or agitated to float to the surface for collection. The council estimates that about 3,000 animals — mostly turtles but also water birds, mammals, and snakes — were collected, cleaned and released.

Even though the spill has been cleaned up as much as possible, the Potawatomi are still concerned about diminished eco-diversity. Rodwan quotes a tribal elder who calls the Enbridge oil spill “the great stain.”

DeLong says the spill “is a cautionary tale, for sure. A lot of information was gained about how we transport material of that nature and how we might respond — not if, but when — a tragedy like that happens in the future. We’ve done more education of people, whether in government or local communities, about where those confluences are between water resources and pipelines.”

Rodwan concurs. “Now we have a baseline,” he says. “We know what resources could be impacted.”

Morrow Lake mud

Downstream, the Morrow Lake Dam, near Comstock, was built in 1985 to create a reservoir — Morrow Lake — to provide cooling water for the now-defunct Morrow Power Plant, a coal-burning facility that sits abandoned and for sale on the lake’s south side.

The dam was retrofitted to produce a modest 800 kilowatts of hydroelectric power and is now owned and operated by STS Hydropower, of Lowell, and its parent company, Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, LLC (ECRE), of Bethesda, Maryland.

On Oct. 31, 2019, STS/ECRE notified federal and state regulatory agencies that it needed to release water to lower the lake level by 10 to 14 feet to make emergency repairs to the dam’s floodgates. This drawdown was expected to last four months, with repairs to be completed prior to spring rains and snowmelt. In May 2020, STS/ECRE notified state agencies that the floodgates could not be repaired but were to be replaced and the water level in the reservoir would remain low until the end of the year. The floodgates were finally replaced in December 2020. However, during the 13-month drawdown, an estimated 369,000 cubic yards of sediment — mud — flowed through the dam, causing major damage to river habitat downstream.

Members of the Kalamazoo River Alliance (KRA), a group of environmentally oriented fly fishermen, may have been the first to observe the muddy discharge, in the early spring of 2020. They reported that mud was filling inlets and creating islands that reduced the river’s navigability. Mud deposits as large as 15 feet wide and 14 feet deep made river access impossible or marginal at Mayors’ Riverfront Park and Verburg Park and sediments were reported in Lake Allegan, 40 miles downstream from the dam.

“I put my hand in the water,” says KRA President Ryan Baker. “When my wedding ring was at the surface, I couldn’t see my fingertips. The water was black.”

According to the Watershed Council, entire stretches of the river bottom and banks are covered with sediment, in some places more than 10 feet deep, affecting fish spawning, life cycles of all aquatic life, and, in some cases, killing river wildlife such as macroinvertebrates, mussels, turtles and fish. Deer have even been trapped in the deep sediments, and the number of fish caught on the river has been dramatically reduced.

KRA members consider this volume of mud to be an ecological disaster far greater than the Enbridge oil spill of 2010. “You only need a quarter inch of sediment to totally destroy spawning habitat for smallmouth bass,” says Baker.

“We screamed from the rooftops. We called News Channel 3, MLive, Fox 17,” Baker recalls. “We contacted Kalamazoo City Commissioner Chris Praedel and Kalamazoo County Commissioner Tracy Hall. We took media people out on the river in our boats so they could observe the muddy water firsthand.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around nearly 400,000 cubic yards of mud, so picture 40,000 dump trucks atop the dam dumping 10 yards of sediment at a time. That’s the equivalent of what opening Morrow Lake Dam did to the river.”

The sediments also made an existing problem worse: “Those sediments released at the upstream end of the Superfund site put additional material on top of the PCB-contaminated material, and that increases the cost of the cleanup,” says Lisa Williams, a contaminants specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“There’s not a good source of funds to do anything about it quickly, so the mud is being slowly distributed farther and farther downstream.”

EGLE’s Peabody says that even now, three years later, only a small amount of the mud has been removed, most of it close to the dam. Currently, there is no timeframe for removing the greater volume of mud, and where to take the mud that is removed will depend on future chemical testing.

Williams adds a warning about walking along the muddy riverbanks. “You can get your boots in pretty deep, pretty quickly in a way that you might not expect.”

Both the Kalamazoo County and Kalamazoo City commissions sent letters to STS/ECRE seeking details and assurance that the company will clean up the sediment from Morrow Lake and hold themselves accountable for the damage done to the river.

EGLE and the DNR also initiated legal action against STS, saying the company “caused significant public safety hazards, massive damage to the State’s natural resources, and significant impediments to recreational use.” That case is in the early stages of litigation, and EGLE and DNR representatives would not comment on it.

Saving the river

From all the information above, it is obvious there are several groups monitoring, protecting and advocating for the Kalamazoo River — from the EPA on the national level to EGLE and the Michigan DNR on the state level to smaller organizations, some voluntary, on the local level.

One of the latter is the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, a group of individuals and representatives of agencies and local government created in 1972 as a result of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement signed by the United States and Canada. “Our footprint crosses many jurisdictions throughout the entire watershed,” explains KRWC Executive Director Doug McLaughlin. “We work with others to understand the science and then apply that science in a way that is most relevant to improvements of the river and interactions that people have with the entire river ecosystem.”

McLaughlin notes that the efforts to improve the health of the river impact “a diverse audience.”

“Everyone who lives in the region and people from outside the region,” he says. “Those interested in increasing outdoor economy. Neighborhood associations that are right next to the river. People who enjoy walking along the river or paddling through a forested wetland, fishing or looking at birds, hearing the sound of the water.”

Another organization, the Kalamazoo River Superfund Community Advisory Group
(CAG), is an all-volunteer organization that shares information and makes recommendations to the EPA on the cleanup at the Allied Paper/Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River Superfund site. It is made up of citizens who live in many of the communities affected by the contamination. CAGs are created under EPA guidelines for larger, more complicated Superfund sites, says the organization’s facilitator, Doug Sarno. “Members are a diverse group of stakeholders who provide advice to the EPA and keep the community better informed.”

Not associated with any of the federal, state or municipal governmental units is the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Tribe, whose work to revitalize the watershed is intricately intertwined with its efforts to preserve its indigenous culture.

From the river’s shallow areas and related waterways, the tribe is harvesting mnomen, reseeding some and using some for its ceremonies and sustenance. Roger LeBine, a citizen of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe, says his goal is to harvest 1,300 to 1,500 pounds of the rice each year “for the elders, ceremonies, seeds” and food.

The tribe also conducts a Lake Sturgeon Rehabilitation Program that it started in 2010 in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Michigan DNR, Grand Valley State University and the Kalamazoo Chapter of Sturgeon for Tomorrow.

Jeff Martin, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Tribal Council secretary, says lake sturgeon are “one of the strongest of the fish species. They’re majestic. We have them in our culture. They’re one of our clans because of their greatness, their ability to live as long as they do (more than 100 years).”

The program involves placing egg mats downstream of Calkins Dam at New Richmond Bridge Park, in Allegan County. During spawning season, tribal members carefully collect fertilized eggs and take them to a hatchery where they grow into small fingerlings that are released around Labor Day.

“The egg mats are basically like furnace filters. Collecting the eggs protects them from predation and from harsh water and debris that comes rushing through and over the dam,” which would wash away or crush and kill the eggs, says Elizabeth Binoniemi-Smith, Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Tribe environmental director.

“The sturgeon supported previous generations of the tribe. Now, through this program, the tribe is supporting the sturgeon,” she says.

In a nutshell, all these efforts have resulted in the health of the river improving, but it’s still a Superfund site. There is progress — albeit slow and painstakingly hard — and fish consumption advisories are still in place. What is certain is that the people, communities and industries that once turned their backs on the river or trained their discharge pipes on it are now turning around and paying attention to it. As the documentary Zibi Yajdan: The River Tells It says in the voice of the river: “People of all walks of life are coming together to restore, conserve and protect me for seven generations to come.”

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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