Dealing with the dam

Editor’s note: The following story on a proposed tax assessment on the Sturgeon River Diversion Dam is the first in a series of three stories.

By Paul Peterson

For the Gazette

TAPIOLA – When the building of a diversion dam on the Sturgeon River was approved by the Houghton County Board of Commissioners more than 40 years ago, not a great deal of debate took place.

The dam was considered just a part of the much larger Sturgeon River Sloughs Natural Area project.

The Department of Natural Resources project, which covers more than 1,200 acres and runs from Arnheim to Chassell, had the strong backing of late State Senators Dominic Jacobetti and Joe Mack and State Representative Russell Hellman.

“As I recall, there wasn’t a single dissenting voice at the meeting from the public (when the dam was approved),” recalled former DNR Fisheries Biologist Ray Juetten.

“The fisheries division was a little bit reluctant to have a dam put on the outlet of the lake. The main reason was that we were concerned that a dam would stop migrations of walleyes and sturgeon and every other fish that went in there. On the other hand, it was important to the people at Otter Lake, and it was important to the wildlife division to get their Sturgeon Sloughs project underway.”

John Waisanen, whose family has owned property on Otter Lake since the late 1890s, recalls there was very little notification given about the project in 1972.

“I know my family wasn’t given any notice. Very few people on the west side received anything, either,” Waisanen commented. “I don’t think that was right.”

Now, a proposed special assessment for maintenance on the dam has drawn the ire of many residents in southern Houghton County.

At the time, county officials said the building of the dam was considered after some Otter Lake residents complained of low water levels and serious silt problems.

“The water levels were low …. at the time,” recalled longtime Otter Lake resident Harold Filpus. “People with docks were having problems getting their boats in. But I don’t believe everyone fully understood the overall effects (of the dam).”

The diversion of the river was accomplished by building the dam. It also raised the level of Otter Lake by a good four or five feet – causing various problems.

“It did create an ideal nesting spot for forage fish like bullheads,” Juetten noted. “That gradually became a problem which we had to deal with.”

Otter Lake, once noted as one of the top walleye lakes in the Midwest between and 1940 and 1980, began to yield fewer and fewer of the prized fish.

“I believe the building of the dam definitely had an effect on the walleye fishery,” said Filpus, who owns tourist cabins on the lake. “You weren’t seeing as many fish … or as many big fish.”

The overall result was fewer visitors coming to a lake where there were once as many as four tourist camps.

Maintenance of the dam had been previously done by the DNR, which decided in 2010 that the county had the responsibility to operate and maintain the dam.

Under the current proposal, property owners would be assessed for the cost of the maintenance.

It’s a one-time assessment, according to county drain commissioner John Pekkala, who was requested by the county board to oversee the creation of special assessment district.

“In this particular case, it is a one-time assessment,” Pekkala said. “Some other dams around Michigan do have longer assessments.”

Waisanen questioned whether this will, indeed, be a one-time assessment.

“When the dam is re-inspected in three years, as required, will we be hit again?” Waisanen said. “I don’t think many of us could afford that.”

Filpus echoed that sentiment.

“Lakefront property is naturally taxed higher than other properties,” he said. “Some of the newer residents (on the lake) have put in some pretty fancy places, so they’re already paying a high rate. None of us want to see those rates go any higher.”

The amount of the assessment for the approximately 90 landowners will have to be approved by the county board – likely after a ruling on the number of owners is given at an Aug. 16 hearing by Marquette County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Mazzuchi.

She was appointed after Houghton County Circuit Court Judge Charles Goodman recused himself from the case.

Next week: The connection between the Sturgeon River Sloughs and the Sturgeon River Diversion Dam.