DNR's managed waterfowl areas help prevent flooding in surrounding communities

A worker builds a dike at Pointe Mouillee State Game Area in Rockwood.

May 2, 2013

Shiawassee River State Game Area in Saginaw County is well-known to Michigan waterfowl hunters, who flock to the area in the fall to pursue the ducks and geese that use the area to feed and rest as they migrate south for the winter. But that same characteristic that makes the area so attractive to waterfowl - standing water - is paying additional dividends to the state of Michigan this year by providing some relief from flooding in low-lying areas in the river valley.

Certainly, if you've driven past nearly any southern Michigan river or stream this spring, you've seen what happens when the heavens open up. Torrential rainfalls have swollen the waterways; many rivers and streams have been out-of-banks with water rushing downstream. And while the streams in the Saginaw River Watershed have not been immune - the launch ramps on the river, for instance, were flooded out and unusable for this year's walleye opener - things might have been much worse if it wasn't for wetland complexes located in the watershed.

Shiawassee River State Game Area flooding."We've got 3,500 acres holding water five to eight feet deep," said Russ Mason, chief of the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division. "Besides providing the function for which they were designed - creating waterfowl breeding, feeding and resting habitat - these areas have a beneficial effect on the landscape, by preventing more flooding. They're providing a benefit to public health and safety."

Joe Robison, a DNR wildlife biologist who oversees all of the managed waterfowl areas in southern Michigan, said flood control is one of the positive side effects of many of the state's managed waterfowl areas.

"A lot of our managed areas are along river systems," Robison said. "Wetlands are important for their storage capacity for runoff and rainwater everywhere. Wetlands act like a sponge. They filter all the effluents out and slowly release the water downstream instead of flooding out cities and towns.

"Crow Island, which is on the Saginaw River, is just like Shiawassee in that regard," Robison said. "All the major waterfowl areas are big wetland complexes."

Dikes damaged by flood waters.Vic Weigold, the wildlife technician who is assigned to Shiawassee, said the value of the flood-water storage of the game area cannot be underestimated.

"We're a flood-storage area for the Shiawassee River area," he said. "It's very valuable to the residents of St. Charles and to those in James Township and Swan Creek Township. Back before we built all of these dikes, those townships and the village of St. Charles would flood sooner and worse than they do now. In fact, the village of St, Charles did flood in places this year and there are some that are still flooded.

"When they built the game area it was part of flood-storage plan."

Virtually the entire 10,000-acre has been under water this spring, Weigold said.

"This spring we were pretty much all under water," he said. "We're still holding a lot of flood water. It was actually over the top of our dikes earlier in the week."

A worker constructs a water-control structure at Pointe Mouillee State Game Area in Rockwood.Weigold said this spring's flooding will set back the improvements that were planned for the area this summer.

"We work on the dikes every summer - repair holes, reshape and re-slope the dikes and work on the water control structures," he said. "We have major flood problems every five or 10 years, but this is the worst flooding we've had since 1986. We have seven dikes that have major holes in them right now. For the time being, we'll push the holes shut with a bulldozer, but eventually, we'll have to haul material in to rebuild them. Our work plan for the year has kind of flown out the window because we'll be repairing dikes. So it puts all of our planned projects back."

The floods have disrupted the typical agriculture practices the area employs annually.

"Usually by this time of year we've got all of our fields drained and we only have water in the marshes," Weigold said. "At this time, everything we've got is under water, including 7,500 acres that are usually high and dry by now. It's going to delay our farming practices which could, as a result, delay flooding our fields for hunting season. And it's going to cost us a significant amount to repair dikes this year."

The flooding has set back wildlife using the area a bit, too, Weigold said.

"We already had geese on nests and we had a good population of ducks using the marshes. Those nests have all washed away. There's no place for them to nest. And there's no telling where the rest of the wildlife, the deer and whatnot, got displaced to. But they'll come back."

Weigold remains optimistic, however, that Shiawassee will be back in the waterfowl business in short order.

"If the weather straightens out, we'll get our crops in soon enough," he said. "And if it keeps raining, we may have to go to more small grains, say, plant more sorghum instead of corn. But we'll get it done."

For more information on the DNR's managed waterfowl areas, visit www.michigan.gov/wetlandwonders.