Restoring the Crystal River

Brendan Mullane

This short documentary film is about several big problems that overlap, literally. This film is also about governmental and nonprofit organizations working together to turn problems into opportunities.

Just outside of Glen Arbor, a well-traveled section of County Road 675 is imperiled as it crosses three sets of undersized culverts slowly crumbling into the Crystal River. That’s a multi-million-dollar problem for the Leelanau County Road Commission .

Commission Manager Brendan Mullane explains, “They’re not failing tomorrow, but they’re going to fail. We need to plan now so it doesn’t become an emergency.”

DJ Shook

The Conservation Resource Alliance (CRA) has been working with the Road Commission and other organizations to identify culvert replacement options that restore a more natural flow to the Crystal River. CRA Biologist DJ Shook says that all three culvert systems are undersized, restricting stream flows and creating a barrier to fish, wildlife and human paddlers trying to enjoy the stream.

Shook points out some obvious problems with the failing culverts. “The water not only goes through the culverts but is piping between and under them,” he says. This roadway could “suddenly fail from a sink hole forming right under the road which can be quite dangerous.”

Brett Fessell

Working with CRA and the County Road Commission to restore the Crystal River is the Grand Traverse Band (GTB) of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. A Restoration Specialist for GTB, Brett Fessell explains that the Crystal River is itself a transportation corridor.

“A wide spectrum of wildlife species use these rivers as corridors or highways to move through the landscape,” Fessell says. “By forcing the river through a series of small pipes, you exclude those things that move along the riverbanks and force fish to battle unnaturally concentrated, high-velocity water flows. And most species of fish in the Great Lakes Region are not strong swimmers.”

By restricting water flows like small dams, the Crystal River culverts have also altered stream geometry and morphology while preventing the natural movement of sediment down the river. Forced through these undersized culverts, the water speeds up and shoots through these metal tubes at high velocity scouring out plunge pools at the downriver end of the pipes.

Andrea Paladino

A Civil Engineer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS-USDA), Andrea Paladino points out that the plunge pools result in culverts that are perched above the natural river bottom.

“We’re altering the stream morphology at the crossing,” Paladino says, “which alters the stream’s ability to provide the necessary conditions for aquatic organisms of all different kinds to navigate upstream.”

Joining the NRCS and the other organizations seeking a free-flowing Crystal River is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Superintendent Scott Tucker says they are working with the larger group to restore the Crystal River’s natural functions.

“Although a small piece of Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Crystal River is a pretty important piece,” Tucker said. “The river provides access for the general public to recreate; it also provides a key wildlife link for fish, otters, mink and other species important to the ecology of the region.”

Scott Tucker

The civil engineering firm, Gosling Czubak of Traverse City was contracted by the Leelanau County Road Commission to design road-stream crossing structures that will assure safe traffic movement while restoring the Crystal River to a natural flow system. As Mullane points out, these projects must go through a permitting process under Michigan’s Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment (EGLE) while meeting the requirements of NRCS and other potential funders.

Bob Verschaeve, a project engineer with Gosling Czubek says that the designs are for “timber bridges at two of the crossings. They will match many other bridges in natural settings.”

As shown in this short film, the bridge designs include  a concrete and steel structure to replace the culverts under CR 675 closest to M-22. That will keep the two road surfaces closely matched in elevation. The classic timber bridges will provide lots of headroom for paddlers, ending the need for portages across the road.

Bob Verschaeve

By spanning the full river channel and a little overflow space (the area known as bank full), the new bridges will provide unimpeded stream flow. According to the project partners, the Crystal will eventually re-establish natural channels where there are now wide backwater areas caused by undersized culverts.

According to Fessell, “There is a likelihood of fully funding the work on these crossings with granted funds from several sources, including the Regional Conservation Partnership Program operated by NRCS, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Bureau of Indian Affairs roads program.”

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