September 17, 2014

Multi-million dollar mistake?

Wrapped up Whitney Drain project alleged to cause flooding in Whitney Township

By Tim Barnum|Staff writer
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WHITNEY TOWNSHIP — If residents of Whitney Township living on Delano and Turner roads were superstitious, they may be blaming the floods surrounding the Whitney Drain on Friday, Feb. 13 on someone walking under a ladder. Others, though, are pointing to errors in the drain project that major construction was completed on last year.

“There are people out there that were probably experiencing the worst flooding in years. … The water was so high in the Whitney Drain that it was flowing under Turner Road and coming up through the drain tiles just like a water fountain,” said Randy Collier, a Lupton resident who owns hunting property and a cabin on Delano road near the drain. “I’m talking about a hunting cabin and hunting property, and there’s probably some (permanent) homes there in serious danger.”

Gary Noffsinger, who lives near the drain, says last year, during major construction of the approximately $4 million project, which includes a $937,500 Clean Michigan Initiative grant and a $72,188 Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control grant awarded through the Great Lakes Commission, he warned project engineers and contractors at drainage board meetings that this could happen.

“I told them when they were doing the drain, that water’s going to back up with all those rocks they’re putting in there. … I’ve told them before all they have to do is keep the river (Whitney Drain) clear. They just kind of shrugged it off,” Noffsinger said, adding that rather than heeding his warning about placing the rock piles in the drain, the drainage board opted to use the rocks to attempt to stop bank and bed erosion.

“That river’s never been that high. … If we get a bunch more snow and rain and stuff it’ll back up again.”

Noffsinger and Collier say they are both upset since they were assessed as part of the Whitney Drainage District and the taxpayers footing the bill for the project, including residents of Iosco and Ogemaw counties, are the ones underwater.

“The taxpayers were assessed all this money and some of them paid hundred and hundreds and hundreds of dollars to this Whitney Drain,” Collier said. “It’s a nightmare. It’s a total mess.”

Collier and Noffsinger also say that out of all the tax dollars spent, only about $900,000 was spent on actual construction in the drain while the rest went towards engineering and attorney fees – a claim that was not disputed by Arenac County Drain Commissioner Larry Davis, who is facing the challenge less than two months into his term as drain commissioner.

Davis says he met with Collier on the thirteenth to discuss his plan to deal with the flooding and adds he predicted this issue while campaigning for drain commissioner last year.

“I made it known that this project was going to increase flooding up to seven percent,” Davis said, adding he is working to alleviate the issue, though.

He says he has already ordered a culvert that was placed four feet too high to be removed and is working on purchasing gate valves that can be closed and opened, preventing drains that flow north into the Southern flowing Whitney Drain from backing up, since he said the flooding problem arises when the stronger southern flow backs up the Northern one. But Davis says since the Whitney Drain is a three-county drain (Arenac, Ogemaw and Iosco counties), the three-county drainage board has to approve any purchases to enhance the drain.

Davis says he was attempting to contact other members of the drainage board on Feb. 19 to let them know about the flooding and his request for the gate valves.

“This will be a long-term solution to the flooding on the south side (of Turner Road),” he said, adding the project, when engineered and designed, didn’t address flooding. “The purpose of this project was not to reduce flooding, it was to reduce the flow of sedimentation to the Saginaw Bay.”

Noffsinger says that purpose isn’t being fulfilled, however.

“The water’s even getting higher,” he said, adding it gets backed up and raises to higher levels because of to the rock piles put in place to slow the flow of the drain’s water. He says bank erosion won’t be slowed with this technique.

“When it (backed up water) busts loose, all that water pressure just eats away at those banks.”

Charlie Bauer, an agent at the Saginaw Bay Department of Environmental Quality Office, says, though, that a steady flow along the banks causes greater erosion than temporarily high levels of water.

Both Collier and Noffsinger also alleged, however, that debris and sedimentation levels flowing through the drain are higher than ever, inverse to the project’s goal.

Out of the three counties in the drainage district, Arenac County’s obligation was set at 23.532 percent of total project costs; Iosco County, 74.314 percent; and Ogemaw County, 2.154 percent.

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