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Surveying Damage After Dam Mistake Kills Brown Trout

July 2, 2008

VANDERBILT, Mich. _ The smell of rotting fish could take the bark off trees. And to biologists Andrew Nuhfer and Tim Cwalinski, the sight of dozens of brown trout from 16 to 20 inches was infuriating and disheartening.

Several miles of the Pigeon River were decimated last week because someone at the Song of the Morning Ranch, a yoga center, apparently screwed up when opening a gate on a private hydroelectric dam and released tons of soft black silt.

The result for thousands of trout and prey fish and countless numbers of crayfish, mayfly larvae and other aquatic creatures was the same as for humans who try to breathe dense smoke _ suffocation.

Nuhfer, head of trout research for the Department of Natural Resources, probably was the first to see that something was wrong.

“I had a crew on the Sturgeon River Sunday,” he said. “They were going to go over and do some work on the Pigeon, so I checked the stream flow gage on line to see what the conditions were. The flow rate was six feet per second (the previous day it was 185 fps). It was so far off that I sent an e-mail to the Gaylord office asking if the gauge was broken.”

When the crew got to the Pigeon on Monday, the gauge did work. But the stream flow was almost blocked by muck the consistency of thick shaving cream and the color of licorice, and the water looked like oil.

Two days later Nuhfer and Cwalinski led a team upriver from the Sturgeon Valley Road Bridge, using an electric shocker to look for live fish.

“We didn’t find anything but little fish. They probably survived near springs. We didn’t find a single live brown trout. We did collect three bags of dead brown trout in a little over a mile,” Nuhfer said. “There’s no way to say for sure, but we probably got 10% of the dead trout. The water was so dirty we couldn’t see most of them.”

As Nuhfer talked, Cwalinski and a couple of other DNR workers poured 75 rotting brown trout onto the ground in a parking lot near the DNR’s Pigeon River campground, laid them out in rows and began measuring.

About a third were 16 inches or better, the biggest 23{. They were the kind of fish that fuel the economy in small towns such as Vanderbilt and Wolverine, where anglers will drive hundreds of miles to catch fish.

Asked how long it would take to rebuild the trout population in that section of the river, Nuhfer said years.

DNR workers said they were told that someone at Song of the Morning manually raised one of two gates on the dam too far and triggered an emergency switch that automatically opened the second gate. Tons of unstable, sludge-like silt poured out of the shallow pond upstream, and Nuhfer said that 36 hours later the silt had reached the Weber Road Bridge.

David Borgeson, the DNR’s natural resources manager in Gaylord, stood on the Sturgeon Valley Road Bridge over what was once a crystalline stream and now looked like a muddy ditch.

“We went downstream with (electric) shockers trying to do a population survey,” he said. “We still don’t know how far downstream the (fish kill) will go. At Webb Road (about eight river miles from the dam) we got three (live) brown trout five, six and seven inches; five brook trout and some young-of-the-year rainbows.”

That area should yield dozens of trout in a population survey.

It was the second time that a silt spill from the yoga center has caused a major fish kill. The last was 24 years ago, July 4, 1984. The Song of the Morning dam provides power for that facility and isn’t regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The state recently notified FERC that the yoga center had connected its hydroelectric system to the energy grid, and the FERC sent a letter to Song of the Morning asking for information. The center disconnected from the grid, averting federal oversight. But it didn’t disconnect from a publically owned river, and this time the state should demand major reparations for the damage this spill caused.

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