Newaygo’s Forgotten River Part II-The State of the Fisheries and Water Quality

Time For The Dams To Go?

​By Charles Chandler and Mark Heying

In Part I of this series it was stated that some controversial issues regarding the overall health of the White River would be addressed. Springtime fishing, and the springtime floods, make this a good time to begin a discussion of this important subject.

On Tuesday, March 19 Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, declared a state of emergency in Newaygo County after floods caused considerable damage to structures and washed out roads. Newaygo County also declared its own state of emergency, when leaders had determined that county resources were not enough “to protect the health, safety, and property to lessen or avert the threat of a crisis.  Some areas with flooding include Newaygo, White Cloud, Fremont, Hesperia, and Grant.”

Additionally, spring steelhead fishing is underway in the nearby Muskegon, and Pere Marquette rivers, and in the White River below Hesperia. Trout fishing season opens the last Saturday in April.

People can and do feel passionately about our beautiful, forgotten river.  This is as it should be. Unfortunately, these passions sometimes turn into emotional, confrontational shouting matches. It’s important therefore to consider the facts of the matter, and to rely on these facts as we discuss the future of the White.

Fortunately, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Grand Valley State University have given us two documents that provide us with factual and reliable, research-based information on the water quality and fishery of the river.
One of these documents is the “Grand Valley State University ScholarWorks@GVSU White River Watershed Preliminary Habitat Assessment” report.  It can be found at the following link;
The other is the “White River Watershed Status of the Fishery Resource Report for Muskegon, Oceana and Newaygo Counties, January 2012“report, found here;

Many of the facts discussed in this article come from these two important reports.
Each spring the White River floods to some degree, impacting the citizens of White Cloud and Hesperia, as well as the many riverside residents along the 30-mile stretch in-between.  Their concerns are valid, as both White Cloud and Hesperia ponds are shallow lakes formed by two old, low, earthen dams.

The White Cloud pond was originally constructed in 1872 to support the lumber industry in and around White Cloud. The current pond covers about 50 acres with an average depth of 8 feet. The earthen dam is about 14 feet high.  Hesperia pond also covers about 50 acres with a maximum depth of 4 feet. The head of this dam is 7.7 feet high. Both spillways were later modified to provide water for electrical power generation for the two respective towns.

In 1951, Consumers Power Company was no longer generating electricity at either White Cloud or Hesperia, and they were looking for someone to take over ownership of the dams. Instead, the DNR Fisheries Division recommended that both dams be removed, due to constant maintenance costs, and because these dams seriously degrade the rivers health.  Despite this advice, ownership of the dams was eventually transferred to the Village of Hesperia and City of White Cloud. The ownership, management and operational responsibility for the White Cloud Dam is somewhat controversial; about two-thirds of the Dam, and about half of the Pond, is in Everett Township.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) classifies state dams into three different categories:  1. High Hazard, 2. Significant Hazard 3. Low Hazard.
White Cloud Dam is classified as High Hazard Potential: The failure of the dam may cause serious damage to inhabited homes, agricultural buildings, campgrounds, recreational facilities, industrial or commercial buildings, public utilities, main highways or class I carrier railroads, or where environmental degradation would be significant, or where danger to individuals exists with the potential for loss of life. The Newaygo Emergencies Service Department has developed an Emergency Evacuation Plan for Dam Failure and Flooding.

We have had several springs where the river has overtopped the emergency spillways of the White Cloud and Hesperia dams. The White Cloud Dam was breached during floods in 1910, 1975 and 1986. In the spring of 2017, the White Cloud Dam emergency spillway was again overtopped and the dam sustained erosion damage.  The City was able to get a grant of taxpayer dollars from the Michigan State Disaster Fund. White Cloud then spent about $100,000 of that on repairs and improvements, which did not cover all of the recommended work. Subsequent repairs, which will occur, will have to be paid for by the citizens of White Cloud, or by the citizens of Michigan, or both.
​The Hesperia Dam has a similar history of dam breaches, overtopping the emergency spillway, resulting reconstruction and repairs.  Hesperia Dam was breached during floods in 1975, and 1986. Again, subsequent repairs, which will occur, will have to be paid for by the citizens of Hesperia, or by the citizens of Michigan, or both.

The White Cloud Dam is almost 150 years old and one questions the logic of maintaining this relic. It is now and will continue to be an old high maintenance earthen dam with considerable liability for the City and downstream residents and landowners. Should the dam suffer another catastrophic failure, the City may be liable for the damages.
A similar situation is happening to communities all around the State.  An aging dam did fail recently on the Boyne River, near Petosky.

The cultural and economic value of White Cloud and Hesperia Pond is debatable. White Cloud has a dock and summer swimming area that is used by some city residents. The Newaygo County Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect holds a day camp there from mid-June – mid-August. The most popular event at the White Cloud Pond is the annual Russell Gilbert Kids Free Fishing Day.

Unfortunately, fishing in White Cloud Pond is poor; it is not stocked, and the access is limited by the primitive boat launch.  In the summer you will see the occasional boat, or in winter the solitary ice fisherman. The most intangible and cultural value derived from the pond is from the esthetic view had by local residents, and the fond memories of the good times that were had down at the swimming hole. But the City of White Cloud does not need a dam in order to have a swimming area; Hesperia has a separate swimming area located in the Sports Park.

The White Cloud and Hesperia ponds do a few things really well. They function as a summertime water heater, restrict river water flow and block the upstream migration of salmon, steelhead trout, walleye, suckers, and other fishes. Both dams seriously degrade the water quality of the river and prevent valuable cold-water fish from moving upstream to their natural spawning grounds.

The two White River dams have a long history of negative effects on the fish in the river’s mainstream and tributaries.  “The cold-water fisheries were degraded as a result of increased water temperatures downstream of the impoundments. According to research presented in the White River Watershed Status of the Fishery Resource Report water quality and specifically water temperature is an important habitat component for cold water stream fish like trout to survive and thrive. Water temperatures determine the types and production level of fish that will be present in Michigan streams (Zorn et al. 2010).”

To better understand water quality, temperature and the fishery you need to divide the South Branch of the White River into three sections; the section above White Cloud Dam, the section between the White Cloud Dam and the Hesperia Dam and the section below Hesperia Dam down to White Lake.

The river above the White Cloud Dam is cooled by abundant springs, and has many shade trees along its banks.  Downfalls provide shelter for trout and abundant spawning gravel for fish reproduction. Presently, self-sustaining populations of brook trout and brown trout occur in the 20.6 miles of river upstream of White Cloud Dam. Of interest, the Michigan DNR, in partnership with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, has a new initiative to bring back the historic and beautiful Michigan Grayling. The upper White River watershed is one of a handful of rivers that have water quality that could sustain the Grayling; they and other trout need clean water that is in the 45 to 65 °F range. If water temperatures exceed 68 °F, they can become stressed.  Follow the following link for more information on the Grayling Initiative.

In the summer months the cool spring-fed water enters the White Cloud Pond, where it warms rapidly, producing a harmful effect on water quality and fishery all the way to Hesperia. Last year, a White River water temperature survey was conducted by DNR employee Mark Tonello. In July he found a maximum temperature above White Cloud Pond of 69 °F.  Below White Cloud Pond, at Highway M37, it was 77 °F. Down at Luce Road, it was 80 °F. These temperatures are clearly too hot to support a healthy river fishery.

In the lower section below Hesperia Dam, the July maximum temperature at Hesper Loop Road was 82 °F.   At the 184th Street crossing it was 81 °F.  There are no trout in the river below Hesperia dam in the summer; the water is simply too hot.
To make matters worse, Michigan migratory brown trout, steelhead, Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, Walleye, suckers, and other migratory fish are blocked from travel up the river by the Hesperia Dam.
Simply put, expert studies show that the White Cloud and Hesperia Dams take the heart out of the White River fishery.  The White Cloud Dam heats the river water to the point at which the trout population struggles, and fails, to survive. The Hesperia Dam stops the Lake Michigan migratory fish from reaching the river at White Cloud.
These facts are well known to City and Village officials, most fishermen, area residents, members of various stewardship groups, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) agents.
The foremost obstructions and challenges to improving White River fish populations and developing the full potential of a world class fishery are due to these two dams. They must be repurposed, so that White River water quality can improve, and the full economic, biological habitat and recreational potential in these rivers may be realized.

Repurposing just one of the dams will not be enough; if you removed the Hesperia dam and allowed Lake Michigan migratory fish to move upstream, they would be then be blocked by the White Cloud Dam. And, according to Mr. Richard P. O’Neal, a recently retired DNR Fisheries Biologist “if Lake Michigan migratory fish gained access to this section of the river, juvenile production would also be affected by thermal water quality degradation from White Cloud Impoundment.”

Given these facts, namely, that both the White Cloud and Hesperia dams are classified as High Hazard Potential for failure, both degrade the river’s fishery and overall ecology, both dams have a limited recreational value, and both are old, dangerous, and cost a lot of money to maintain, one must ask the question:  Why are they still there?

There’s a perceived value of the White Cloud Dam in that it provides a scenic view to the residents around the Pond, and provides an occasional swim to the local residents, at the expense of the Village of Hesperia, and to the detriment of the river itself.
There’s a perceived value of the Hesperia Dam to a few local businesses that cater to the seasonal fisherman that target the migratory salmon and steelhead.  Some people see their support for the Dam as an act of loyalty, which protects the Village economy from competition, at the expense of The City of White Cloud, and to the detriment of the river itself.

If you take the larger view and look at these small dams and their impoundments across the country that are privately owned or owned by Municipalities you will see some similarities. The owners of these dams cling to and defend them in the face of growing liability, continued deterioration, and expensive maintenance that is often supported by local, state and national taxpayers. They maintain their support even when presented by strong fact-based arguments that they, the upstream and downstream landowners, and the recreational tourism and regional residents would all receive a greater benefit by removing or repurposed them both.

Go to Hesperia Dam now, and take a look.  Stand on the dam and watch the beautiful, and valuable migratory fish jump time and time again, as they try to continue their journey up the White. They are biologically programmed to continue until they reach the absolute uppermost tributary or spring, searching for the gravel used to build their nursery redds (nests) and lay their eggs, in hopes of producing the next generation of fish.
Sadly, they will tire, after repeated attempts to continue upstream.  They will then drop back downstream, usually to the area between Highway 20 and Pines Point.

That’s where you’ll find the fishermen; at the dam and at every access point between there and Pines Point.  The consequences are that the spawning fish are taken or harassed to the point that they will build their redds under obstructions, where they cannot be reached by casting, or they will hide during the day and spawn at night. Concentrating wade and drift fishermen along a short stretch of the river often leads to crowding and subsequent confrontation with other fishermen and from streamside landowners that forbid trespassing. Both of these can easily spoil a long-awaited fishing trip.
The fish are, in a very real sense, confined by the Village of Hesperia; the river, and the fishery, pay the price.  Ironically, by limiting the potential fish population, Hesperia is, in fact, hurting itself as well.

According to the State of Michigan DNR, the habitat above White Cloud Pond could be a fish factory. Other ideal spawning areas are found on the main branch of the river between White Cloud Pond and Echo Drive and between east Baldwin Ave and east Warner Ave.  Then there are all the clear cold tributary streams that feed the White. All have ideal spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead.
Stopping these migratory fish at Hesperia or White Cloud dam is unreasonable and shortsighted. Allowing these fish to continue upstream to this ideal spawning grounds would produce a far greater number of fishes, that would then pass through Hesperia, and in the case of steelhead and walleye back down through Hesperia after post spawn. It would also give the fishermen great access to many miles of additional fishing waters.

And so, the questions boil down to these; would Hesperia prefer to keep things as they are, assuming the risk of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain an old, failing dam, to keep the relatively few fish restricted for themselves and at a cost of a much more vibrant and healthier fishery?  Would White Cloud prefer to keep its aging dam, assuming the risk of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to keep a silted in reflecting pond, at the cost of a much healthier, and locally valuable river?

Each year that the White Cloud and Hesperia dams are allowed to remain, the recreational potential for fishermen and kayakers is lost or degraded. and the long-term water quality and biological community are degraded. Each year, the citizens of the Village of Hesperia and White Cloud, along with local businessmen, and many of streamside property owners, leave money and other economic benefits on the table.
Should they remain in place and the natural infilling of silt continue both dams will eventually fail or be frequently overtopped requiring repairs and reconstruction.  Both Dams have uncounted tons of silt bottled up behind them, which will then wash down the river should failure occur, ruining it for years to come.

In the next article, a comparison between the potential of the White River to that of the nearby and famous Pere Marquette will be made. Then some suggestions for collaboration, and a way forward to some long term and agreeable solutions will be made, for all that live along our beautiful, forgotten river.