(Revised July 15, 2012)


• What does the Antrim County Drain Commissioner do?

• What does the Operator of Dams do?

• What’s it like to be the Operator of Dams?

• Tour the Bellaire Dam.

• Tour the Elk Rapids Hydro Dam.

• Why doesn’t the Antrim County Drain Commissioner handle drainage issues like drain commissioners downstate do?

• How to Contact the Drain Commissioner or Operator of Dams.

• Biographical Information on Mark Stone

What does the Antrim County Drain Commissioner do?

Technically speaking, the Antrim County Drain Commissioner has nothing to do. That's because Antrim County has only one legal drainage district around Birch Lake that rarely requires attention. (The Birch Lake drainage district was established as a legal mechanism to create a pump system to transfer sewage from the lakefront homes to the Village of Elk Rapids' waste treatment plant.) With no significant drainage district, the drain commissioner has virtually no statutory duties under the Michigan State Constitution. Nevertheless, in a quirk of State law, Antrim County is still required to have a Drain Commissioner.

Many years ago, the County Board of Commissioners decided to assign the Drain Commissioner some non-statutory duties. At the time, it probably seemed like a good move: we had a drain commissioner, so let's give him something to do. Specifically, they delegated the operation of the Bellaire Dam and provided a small salary for the work. It's important to understand that these duties are non-statutory, they could be revoked at any time by the Board, and are non-political. This was the status of the job when I was appointed the position in 1997.

Since 1997, the responsibilities of the job have grown quite a bit. First, I was asked to handle the administrative duties at the Bellaire Dam, which include dealing with long term maintenance, construction projects and meeting the regulations set by the Dam Safety Division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Later, the management of the Elk Rapids Hydroelectric Dam was assigned to me. The Elk Rapids facility turned out to be an administrative tangle of poorly written contracts, huge financial liabilities and an ongoing budget loss for the County. It took many years to sort out. One thing led to another, until the job of running the dams reached a point where it needed to become a permanent County position.

After many months of work, the County Board of Commissioners formally created the Operator of Dams as a County employee. The County Drain Commissioner position still exists, but the salary has been reduced to $500 per year and the Drain Commissioner no longer is involved in managing the dams.

I continue to seek election to the post of Antrim County Drain Commissioner for two reasons: 1) After learning how powerful a drain commissioner can be in the State of Michigan, I believe the expansion of this post would be counter to the best interest of Antrim County. I would like to reduce the salary to $1 per year. I do not support the formation of a new drainage district around the Antrim Chain of Lakes that would create a new way to raise property taxes (as some people have proposed). 2) Since so many Antrim County residents still associate the Drain Commissioner with the dams, I would like the next four years to continue educating people that the dams fall under the County Board of Commissioners, not the Drain Commissioner.

What does the Antrim County Operator of Dams do?

Antrim County owns two dams: the Elk Rapids Hydroelectric Dam and the Bellaire Dam. The County is also obligated by court order to maintain the water levels on the two lakes formed by the dams: Elk Lake and Intermediate Lake. The County Board of Commissioners assigned the task of maintaining those levels, and the dams, to the Operator of Dams. The Operator of Dams is overseen by the Public Works Committee of the County Board of Commissioners. I hold the position of the Operator of Dams for Antrim County.

In order to supervise and operate the dams, the Operator of Dams maintains a small budget which is part of the County’s General Fund. The Operator of Dams has no employees, but gets secretarial support from the County Planner’s office and lawn maintenance support from the County Building Maintenance Dept. Each year, the Operator of Dams provides an Annual Report to the County Board and meets with the Public Works Committee as necessary. He also maintains a small office on the second floor of the County Building. The position is part time only and most of the work is performed at the dams.

The Operator of Dams operates the Bellaire Dam himself. (The Bellaire Dam is located in Richardi Park, near the swimming beach and picnic area.) The dam consists of an earthen berm with 5 electrically powered gates set into a concrete structure. The gates must be operated on site to increase and decrease the flow of water from Intermediate Lake in order to maintain the court ordered lake level. The level is measured at a gauge located near Central Lake.

The Elk Rapids Hydroelectric Dam is operated under contract by Elk Rapids Hydroelectric LLC (ERH). This dam maintains the court ordered level for Elk Lake. The Operator of Dams acts as supervisor of the contract and liaison with ERH. Since the facility is County property, the Operator of Dams is also responsible for community relations, periodic maintenance, and regulatory inspection of the Elk Rapids Dam building and the equipment.

Both dams require routine safety inspections by the Department of Environmental Quality, and in the case of the Hydro Dam, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The inspection process necessitates the hiring of engineers and often the bidding of contracts for larger maintenance projects, which is handled by the Operator of Dams and authorized by the County Board.

In addition, the Operator of Dams is the principal responder to emergencies at the dams and responsible for coordinating other agencies. In the past fifteen years, several equipment emergencies have occurred at the dams.

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What’s it like to be Operator of Dams?

People who don’t live on the lakes in Antrim County might be surprised at how passionate some of our residents are about the lake levels. Most of my interaction with the public is fielding questions and complaints about that subject. About half the people that complain feel the level is too high, and the other half feel the level is too low. In most cases, there is little I can do but explain the process of maintaining the lake levels.

For instance, the levels of only two lakes are directly controlled by the dams and yet I field calls from residents on many of the lakes in the County where the dams have little or no effect. Even though the court has established legal levels on Elk Lake and Intermediate Lake, nature doesn’t always cooperate with the court orders. The volume of water we can move through the dam after a heavy rain is not sufficient to drop the surface to the legal level immediately—it may even take weeks on Intermediate Lake —and opening the dams too quickly can also have consequences. Operating the dams and maintaining the levels is a balancing act of the first order.

Since taking office fifteen years ago, both dams have undergone several rounds of careful inspections and a considerable amount of repair and refurbishment. You may have noticed a few years ago, when we replaced the old cyclone fencing around the Bellaire Dam compound and removed the unsightly and dangerous barbed wire. At the same time, entire areas of the concrete abutments were resurfaced to treat damage from the constant flow of water. (All this work was paid for with a FEMA grant thanks to the help of the Antrim Conservation District—no Antrim tax dollars were necessary.) Of course, like all mechanical parts, the motors, gears and fittings on the dams are in need of routine maintenance, and these parts are checked on a regular basis.

Technological improvements have improved our ability to reduce the fluctuation of the lake level in Intermediate Lake. Through the funding of another grant, the U.S. Geological Survey installed an electronic lake level gauge which allows the Dam Operator to check the level by way of the internet from any location. It also records the level over time, which offers the ability to assess the speed with which the water level rises and falls in relation to the changing of the gates.

Prior to 1997, no records of lake levels were ever compiled. The electronic gauge on Intermediate Lake now automatically records the level each 5 minutes and we also record each change in the position of gates on the dam.

The Elk Rapids Hydro Dam presents the greatest administrative challenge. As a power generating facility, the dam falls under the regulations of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). It’s hard to explain how complicated the FERC paperwork, inspections, etc., associated with owning a hydro dam can be, and to complicate matters, we also come under the oversight of the Department of Environmental Quality.

The Hydro Dam is operated under a complicated contractual agreement with Elk Rapids Hydroelectric (ERH). The Hydro Dam is monitored by the ERH twenty four hours a day and ERH performs the routine maintenance on the generating equipment as well. However, Antrim County maintains the building and impoundments and occasionally brings in outside contractors to perform larger maintenance tasks.

It took several years to fully understand all the administrative and equipment operation of the Hydro Dam and even today, we’re still learning more as we go. Just as at the Bellaire Dam, the Hydro Dam requires regular maintenance work. Most recently, we have contracted a firm to repoint and repair the masonry on the building. We are also reconstructing and repairing cement work.

Admittedly, I love this job. From an early age and into college I worked in our family business, a marina at the mouth of the Detroit River. It was a wonderful education for learning how to work in and around water, including marine construction, hydrology, and all the related trades. We also lived on the river, where I spent virtually all my free time as a youth, exploring, fishing and duck hunting. So, it takes little effort to drive down to the dam at any hour of the day or night and adjust the gates—just listening to the water fall through the sluice way is a reward in itself.

It's important to note that the Operator of Dams is not a political position. I focus only on where the lake level should be according to the legal court-ordered level.
The last person that should have an opinion on raising or lowering the level should be the guy in charge of maintaining the level after it is established.

Besides, we already have an active and ongoing political debate in Antrim County, it occurs at the County Board of Commissioners. The Board is the place to debate the issues of our time—they set the policy, they set the budget, they instruct the staff. Once the Board sets the policy, the Operator of Dam’s job is to expedite the policy in a fair and efficient manner.

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Tour the Bellaire Dam.

As noted above, the Bellaire Dam is located in Richardi Park, near the swimming beach and picnic area. The original dam was constructed soon after the first settlers arrived in the area to power the local sawmill and back up Intermediate Lake to make it easier to float logs from the adjacent areas. Richardi, the park’s namesake, was the owner of the woodenware factory that was located on the site of the park and the man responsible for first fitting the dam with equipment to generate electricity. Ironically, at first the power was not used in Bellaire, but a transmission line carried the electricity to Charlevoix where it was used to provide some of the first public lighting with electric bulbs (reputedly the first such use of electricity in Michigan).

The Bellaire Dam continued to generate power well into the last century and was finally decommissioned some time in the 1950s. The three concrete chutes with vertical gates on the west side of the dam date to the era of power generation, during which they served as the overflow gates in case of floods. The two radial arm gates and their concrete chutes were installed around 1980 and replaced the structure that housed the water turbine and generators.

The summertime water level of Intermediate Lake was established by a circuit court order at 607.15 feet above sea level in 1986. On November 1st of each year, the order calls for the level to be dropped to 606.54. The following spring, the lake level is raised to the summertime level on May 15th (or ice break-up, if it occurs earlier).

The legal lake level has changed several times in recent decades. In 1973, the court had established the Intermediate Lake level at 607.4 (3 inches higher than presently) in the summer and 606.94 (six inches higher) in the winter. In 1980, the County Board of Commissioners petitioned the court to drop the level due to complaints about erosion and flooding. In 1984, after the petition of the Upper Chain of Lakes Association supporting the Commissioners, the court ordered an average year round level of 606.54. However, problems with summer boat navigation in low water initiated a counter argument and petition in 1985 by the Northern Waterways Association. The court responded by setting the higher level of 607.15 during the summer.

In practice, the water level have a fluctuation of several inches with a significant rain or melt—even if the dam is wide open. Steep hills in the Intermediate Lake watershed send water into the lakes very quickly and cause sudden increases in the lake level. If the ground is already saturated with moisture, the runoff accelerates—as it will with the quick melt of snow pack during a spring heat wave. The stretch of distance from Intermediate Lake down the shallow Intermediate River to the dam and the convergence with the Cedar River delay the movement of water from the lake—and the effects of changes of gates at the dam. Just this spring, heavy rainfalls drove the lake level five inches above normal and it took almost two weeks to drop back—even though all the dam gates were open since the rains began.

However, most of the time the level is within an inch or so of the ordered level. One thing is almost always true: the water level is either going up or going down—it’s rarely remains static for more than a couple days at a time—but that’s just Michigan weather at work.

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Tour the Elk Rapids Hydro Dam.

Similar to the Bellaire Dam, the first dam at Elk Rapids was built with the arrival of the first settlers and also powered the local sawmill. Sometime in the late 19th century, the dam was electrified to supply the growing iron foundry and related industries. The Elk Rapids Iron Company conveyed the dam to the Elk Electric Company in the mid 1920s and it later came into the ownership of Consumers Power Co. The dam was decommissioned in the late 1950s and eventually came into the possession of Antrim County. During the energy crisis of the late 1970s, the County took the opportunity to recommission the facility as a hydroelectric dam, and the current generating equipment was installed at that time. Concurrent with the recommissioning, Antrim County contracted with Traverse City Light and Power to manage the daily operation of the electricity generation.

In 2007, Antrim County contracted with a new group, Elk Rapids Hydroelectric LLC (ERH), to operate the hydroelectric facility. ERH is a family-owned enterprise (the Stockhausens) who are dedicated to the relicensing and perpetuation of hydro power in Elk Rapids. Antrim County is now halfway through the five-year licensing process with good prospects for success. Thanks to the dedication of the Stockhausens, the facility is now running in the black.

The present day dam is located on Dexter Street in Elk Rapids, situated between the upper (Elk Lake) and lower (Grand Traverse Bay) boat harbors and is an integral part of the historic downtown and the recreational waterfront, including the Edward R. Grace Harbor. The downstream side of the dam is a popular fishing destination that attracts anglers from all over Michigan.

The brick building visible from the exterior houses the generating equipment. Built into its foundation are four separate chutes through which the water flows. Only two contain generating turbines. The water enters a chute through gates on the upper side and flows into a large rectangular chamber. A cylindrical turbine housing sits in the middle of the chamber with wicket gates at the top edge. Water flows through the wicket gates and falls downward into the housing, pushing the turbine blades as it falls. The turbine drives a shaft that extends through the upper floor and drives the electric generator. All the generating equipment is monitored 24 hours a day.

The summertime water level of Elk Lake was established by a circuit court order at 590.8 feet above sea level in 1973. On November 1st of each year, the order calls for the level to be dropped to 590.2. The following spring, the lake level is raised to the summertime level on April 15th (or ice break-up, if it occurs earlier).

For several reasons, the Elk Lake level is easier to keep constant and less fluctuations occur than on Intermediate Lake. The Elk Rapids Dam has considerable capacity and is located close to Elk Lake, so more water can be moved more quickly in response to rainfall. Also, the Elk River runs into Grand Traverse Bay through another route and provides an overflow capacity independent of the dam.

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Why doesn’t the Antrim County Drain Commissioner handle drainage issues like drain commissioners downstate?

As explained above, the Antrim County Drain Commissioner’s statutory duties are virtually non-existent. Antrim County never elected to create legal drainage districts of the sort widely found in downstate Michigan. Therefore, the Drain Commissioner has little power other than the duties assigned by the County Board of Commissioners.

Historically, the drain commissioner was the authority that determined where and how drainage ways were constructed to drain stormwater runoff from the land for farmers. In the heavily agricultural (and flat) counties of southern Michigan, drainage districts were commonly established and the drain commissioner was one of the most influential of local politicians with the power to assess taxes and condemn land for public projects. Today, drain commissioners in many downstate counties continue to be important political power brokers that now build sewers and other infrastructure for modern development.

The ground of Antrim County never supported the intense agricultural activity of downstate and the sandy nature of local soils lend themselves to quick absorption of water. Therefore, the County never had the need to establish legal drainage districts to handle runoff. As a result, the Antrim County Drain Commissioner has no authority over drainage issues that arise in the County. Drainage issues associated with the roadways are handled by the Road Commission. Drainage issues related to building activity are handled by the Antrim Conservation District (which administers the Soil Erosion Control Program). Drainage issues between Antrim County landowners have been ruled to be civil matters between the landowners.

One small drainage district exists in Antrim County. It includes the area around Birch Lake in Elk Rapids Township and was created to build a small sewer system to pump into the Village of Elk Rapids’ sewage treatment plant. The Drain Commissioner’s only involvement with that district is to maintain the County easement that follows the small creek that drains Birch Lake to the Grand Traverse Bay. Every few years, the Drain Commissioner organizes a work party to clear the easement of debris and overgrowth that might impede the flow.

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How to Contact the Drain Commissioner, Operator of Dams, Mark Stone:

The Drain Commissioner and the Operator of Dams are both part-time positions and most of the work is done outside of normal business hours. To contact me, it's best to email or call me during normal business hours at my regular job as publisher of Michigan Maps in Elk Rapids. You may also drop by the office at 104 Dexter Street, in the historic downtown.

Mark Stone, 231-264-6800 (Feel free to leave a message, if you get the machine.)

Email: mail@michiganmapsonline.com

Please direct official or legal correspondence to: Antrim County Operator of Dams (Drain Commissioner), P.O. Box 217, Bellaire, MI 49615 (231) 533-6265

For biographical information on Mark Stone, please click here.

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