Since 2017, we’ve been watching neighborhoods on Lower Crooked Lake slowly sinking under water. Sandbags, pumps and prayers are barely keeping up with the lake’s rising levels, and now, for some residents, the water has snuck past those lines of defense. For months, residents have continually complained to Barry County Drain Commissioner Jim Dull and pleaded for consideration from county commissioners.
Through their attorney, the homeowners said their homes have become uninhabitable and asked the court to force Dull to begin eminent domain proceedings, a process by which a government takes possession of private property through compulsory purchase. By making “good-faith” offers on the damaged properties, the county, through Dull, could have allowed homeowners to find suitable housing and ended their nightmare.
“I’m disappointed that these people have chosen to pursue this option,” Dull said at the time the suit was filed.
By statute, a drain commissioner has the power to levy taxes, borrow money and set policy – powers that even the governor does not have. But those powers are relatively meaningless in the face of the Crooked Lake flooding crisis.
The Crooked Lake situation has dominated his work as drain commissioner, and he’s spent countless days and nights planning, excavating and visiting with the homeowners. But a thorn from Mother Nature also has made his office a victim in the situation.
The suit alleged that a “massive increase in Upper Crooked Lake level” occurred because, in an effort to aid similar situations at Mud Lake and others in the Watson Drain District, Dull replaced a culvert on Floria Road. That hoped-for solution has, along with at times excessive rain, added more water to Crooked Lake and even closed portions of roads, including M-43.
In an effort to reduce Crooked Lake’s rising level, Dull has been pumping water into a holding area for several months. He’s purchased adjacent land to pump even more water into a containment area that is presently under construction. The tab for county taxpayers has already surpassed $500,000 – and it’s not coming soon enough to save these long-desperate homeowners.
As the rest of us stand on higher ground watching the Crooked Lake drama, I see three areas about to sweep us all into the stream.
One, empathy for the victimized homeowners has been easy up to this point, but sympathy may soon be coming from our pocketbooks. In all parts of the county, stormwater is designed to flow through drains, natural or artificial creeks or ditches, and pipelines. The territory served by a specific drain is known as a watershed and is organized as a drainage district. Within these districts, the drain commissioner can levy tax assessments or direct construction and maintenance of drains and culverts.
Crooked Lake is part of the Watson Drain District and drain district homeowners would be held responsible through special taxation to cover the cost of eminent domain proceedings for the 10 owners of flooded properties. A determination of condemnation values for the properties that were part of the lawsuit was estimated between $6 million and $10 million. Plus, the county could have been forced to tear down the houses and left with a non-buildable area. According to law, as stated in the complaint, the county would have been required to abide by a constitutional obligation to purchase the properties at 125 percent of fair market value.
The possible financial havoc for the county leads to my second concern: How can we be assured this same situation will not occur again on another lake or water-bordering area? Hydrologist Andy Dixon of the National Weather Service office in Grand Rapids was in Barry County and on Crooked Lake last week. According to Dixon, the entire Midwest – and southwestern Michigan, in particular – has experienced far more rainfall than usual for the past six years. The average rainfall for the area before 2013 was about 35 inches per year, but the average since then has added an extra 20 to 30 inches. Dixon said it’s almost to the point that this area is experiencing two years’ worth of rain per year.
Meanwhile, he said, he doesn’t see any letup in rainfall on the horizon, and maintains that the ground is saturated to the point that it will take years for water levels to return to normal.
And it’s not just us. At a recent meeting in Traverse City, state and federal officials were on hand to discuss the high levels of Lake Michigan. Federal officials predict extremely high water this spring and summer, a continuation of the past two years of levels above long-term averages.
Lead forecaster Lauren Fry and physical scientist Deanna Apps of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spoke about long-term patterns in water levels and what affects the lakes’ total net volume – the “net basic supply,” seasonal fluctuations, and other factors that influence changes.
Net water volumes in the Great Lakes are affected by inflow from upstream water bodies, precipitation and watershed runoff, as well as evaporation rates and outflow into downstream lakes. Fry said Lake Superior has experienced six consecutive years of above-average net volumes, while Apps pointed out levels measured currently are already above the record mean set in 1986.
That raises my third concern and logical conclusion: This problem is bigger than all of us, and we need to figure out solutions for the continuing high water plaguing our state. The drain commissioner cannot be held as a scapegoat. This role is often overlooked until there is a crisis, such as the one at Crooked Lake.
These homeowners have suffered enough. Hopefully, the measures being taken now will begin to alleviate the high water they're facing every day.
In the meantime, let’s all pray for a warm and dry summer.
Fred Jacobs, CEO,
J-Ad Graphics Inc.