Source: Sherman Publications

Deep trouble with shallow ponds

by Mary Keck

July 18, 2012

For residents living along the Mill Ponds in downtown Clarkston, low water levels have been the source of deep concern.

They are unhappy with low water levels, particularly in the Upper Pond, north of Miller Road.

As a result, they’ve voiced their frustration to City Council, Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Ed Adler, owner of the dam on Washington Street. Many believe the opening and closing of the dam is to blame for the lack of water in the pond.

Ed Adler’s dam opens and closes at the control of dam operator Bob Roth, Adler’s stepbrother.

When the dam is open, water runs out of the pond and into the stream through Depot Park. If the dam is closed, water is held in both the Upper and Lower ponds. Lately, residents living along the water’s edge have seen a reduction in the pond’s depth, and the Upper Pond, in particular, has looked more like a mud pit than a water body lately.

The low water level is a relatively new problem, according to residents.

Russell Rana said, “I’ve lived on the pond for 39 years, and never had a problem until the Adlers bought it.”

Armstrong, who lived on the pond for about 15 years in the 70s, “never saw the pond as low as it is now,” and “we never saw the bottom of the pond like you can see now” nor did you see the green algae.

Results of low water level

“I’ve got a canoe; I can’t use it. My grandkids come over, and they can’t swim or go fishing. I haven’t heard a frog in years,” said Bob Ryeson who has lived on the Mill Pond since 1975. Ryeson isn’t alone in his frustration.

Fourteen-year-old James Sirbaugh lives two blocks away from the pond. His favorite spot to catch bass and blue gill is right off the dam, but he’s worried his days of fishing may be over.

“The fish are dying, and they can’t lay their eggs because of the low water level,” he said. “It’s a mud pit.”

Ralph Daigle, who has lived on the pond for 13 years, said he has seen fish-spawning beds dry up when the pond water gets low. People used to fish right off the shore line, but Daigle has noticed a drop in people fishing in recent years. Lately, Daigle has had to walk through the mud and muck to get to his paddle boat.

According to Fish Biologist Jim Francis of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the pond’s water level could impact the fish because fish like to associate with vegetation. As water levels decline and move away from the shore, it prevents fish from getting to the plants to feed on the invertebrates growing on them, and the fish can’t hide as well.

On the other hand, Francis said, “water levels aren’t that important this time of year,” but in the spring during spawning season, low water can be particularly significant to northern pike because their spawn need to rest and hold on to vegetation while they develop.

The DNR has “seen declines of Northern Pike habitat,” which have been found in the pond in previous years. In November of 1935, The Clarkston News reported Gus Larion caught a 7.5 pound pike in Mill Pond, and it was caught right from the shore at the edge of his yard.

Not only is pond resident Ralph Daigle concerned about the fish, but also about the aesthetic presence the pond has in Clarkston.

“You can’t miss it; a lot of people use Holcomb Road and see the water,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment.”

Long-time pond resident Russell Rana agrees, “the Mill Pond is what sets Clarkston apart from other communities.”

Concern about the pond isn’t only on the minds of residents. The subject of the water’s depth came up during a City Council meeting on June 25.

City Manager Dennis Ritter reported to the council, “we’ve received a lot of phone calls about both the upper and lower ponds.” Councilman Mike Sabol said, “it is the worst I’ve seen it in seven years.”

Ritter noted those living on the pond’s shoreline often irrigate their lawns with the water; he also mentioned the lack of rainfall and evaporation.

Although Ritter mentioned, “the dam is not being closed and water is draining out,” he says the city cannot take any action except to encourage the owners to close it.

Causes for reduced depth

In Daigle’s mind, there’s no doubt Adler and Roth are behind the Mill Pond’s low water level. He said he has watched Roth come out between 6-7 in the morning to operate the dam.

“Then, within one or two days the water level will recede,” he said.

Roth sympathizes with residents who live on the pond.

“I can understand their feelings,” he said, but “there’s only so much water.”

When operating the dam, Roth has to consider how much water goes over the spillway and the amount flowing through the stream in Depot Park.

If too much water comes over the spillway, it will flood the neighboring property; however, that’s usually not a concern except in the spring and winter, Roth explained. If the dam is closed, the water in the Depot Park stream will dry up, which is what concerns Roth in the summer time. He also points out factors such as silt build-up, weeds, and rainfall on the water level.

The Mill Pond is considered a special assessment district in Oakland County because of the numerous weeds in the water. Residents pay $150 each year to keep the weeds down, but Ryeson said the low water level is keeping contractors from killing weeds. He’s observed them stopping at the Upper Pond because they can’t get through the muck in their boats.

Frank Shoebel is a pond resident and a member of the Mill Pond subcommittee, which monitors the water and makes recommendations to the Oakland County Lake Board. From his perspective, the pond’s water level isn’t necessarily impacted by operation of the dam.

“I live on the pond too, and I’m not happy with the water level, but you can’t blame any individual,” he reasoned.

“To fill it up again, we’re going to need some rain,” Shoebel said. “Otherwise Mother Nature may try to revert the pond back to a creek.”

The Mill Pond was originally a stream, but it was dug out to create a pond when many of the homes were built.

Dam owner Adler agrees.

“If it doesn’t rain, there’s no way to fix it,” he said.

According to Meteorologist Dave Kook of the White Lake Weather Station, the Detroit Metro area is 1.36 inches below normal rainfall levels for 2012. For June specifically, we were 2.21 inches below normal and May was 1.66 inches below normal.

“The drought conditions greatly reduce ground water levels,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s not much evaporation with the high humidity we’ve been experiencing.”

He noted when dew points drop, there will be more evaporation.

Past Mill Pond resident Jim Armstrong insists the change in water level is not evaporation.

“That body of water is too large that evaporation is not going to have an effect,” he said.

Armstrong also doesn’t believe there’s less water flowing into the pond. While a resident living upstream could be diverting the water’s course without authorization, “water flow coming into the pond is consistent with what I’ve seen over the years,” he observed.

Armstrong believes the dam may be at fault for the low water level, but it could be leaking and the owners don’t know it.

During a meeting with the DEQ on June 29, Adler mentioned even when the dam is closed completely, water still leaks out.

However, the state regularly inspects the mechanism, and has found it is working properly as recently as last year, Roth reports.

Adler has needed maintenance performed on the dam before. For instance, in 1987, a diver fixed the dam from below the water’s surface.