History, ecology collide in Oakland Township debate

A state historic marker commemorates the Paint Creek Mill Race on Orion Road near Gallagher in Goodison.  But since late last year, there has been little water in the channel that for the last 177 years diverted water from the creek and originally powered the mill’s wheel.

Last year, the Clinton River Watershed Council, with the permission of the Oakland Township Board of Trustees, received a grant to remove an old dam in order to improve the aquatic habitat of the creek. Anne Vaara, executive

director of the CRWC, said removal of the dam was a top priority of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources because of the importance of Paint Creek.

“It’s the only cold-water stream in southeast Michigan, so it’s a very important, designated stream,” she said.

According to the Michigan Historical Center, the creek was dammed in 1835 when Needham Hemingway dug the half-mile mill race to power his grist mill. When the mill ceased operating in 1941, the mill race and dam were left in place.

Local historians say the mill was a crucial part of settling Goodison. The mill race has been on the state register of historic places since 2002 and the mill, now a township office, is still a landmark.

When the dam was removed, a pipe was installed to maintain water flow to the mill race, though a smaller percentage of the flow than previously. Due to accumulated sediment and a dry year, “The stream is lower than the sediment now,” Vaara said. “It does have water in the mill race. The problem is there is so much sediment in the mill race that has built up.”

Jan Olson, whose property borders the mill race and the creek, said the pipe was installed too low to function. “In the year it’s been there, it’s never worked,” she said. “We have nothing but rainwater” and water from some artesian wells. The fear now is that with all that water going into the creek, nearby homes could be flooded.

“It’s been really stressful for our neighborhood,” she said. “We’ve already lost trees … because for 177 years this water didn’t go all into Paint Creek.”

The township has hired the civil engineering firm WadeTrim to come up with a plan to restore the mill race and bring the water wheel back into service. The firm has recommended a two-step approach: removing sediment and restoring the mill race, then restoring the mill wheel, including a new turbine. The mill was last powered by water in 1998, and the turbine has since been removed.

“They’ve come up with some suggested changes to that original plan that should put back the water flow,” said township trustee Mike Bailey. “At the time the township gave approval to take the dam down, we were supposed to have some water in the mill race, not zero like it is now. …

“I’m not assigning blame at this point. I’m just saying it didn’t work.”

The CRWC agreed to apply for grants to fund the restoration of the mill race. Vaara said that hasn’t happened yet because the township needs to acquire easements along the mill race and provide details on what grants would cover.

Bailey said the township has received permission from the adjacent property owners to take soil borings. “We’re optimistic that’s still going to happen,” he said.

Olson said the whole project has been an exercise in frustration.

“The mill race worked before all of this. The ducks were in there, we had fish in there and the blue heron walked down it,” she said. “Now it’s all gone. …

“You remove the heart of the patient and now we’re saying, ‘A donor, please?’”

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