Meltwatch: After Copper Country’s big flood, plans in place for spring runoff

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Water is seen Wednesday on Houghton Canal Road in Stanton Township. Despite concerns about the amount of snow and damage from last year’s flooding, county and township officials said the spring melt has been manageable so far.

HOUGHTON — The spring melt has been orderly so far, but an infrastructure weakened by last summer’s flood has local municipalities preparing for complications.

The Houghton County Road Commission repaired about $15 million of the $30 million of damage to county roads before winter hit, said Engineer Kevin Harju. It’s watching those projects closely to make sure there’s no additional damage.

So far it’s been a typical spring thaw, Harju said.

“We’re having water go over the tops of the roads in several places in the county,” he said. “Our crews were out this weekend trying to get as many as we could.”

Crews have been working to open up frozen ditches and culverts filled with hard-packed snow.

“With 850 miles of roadway, we can’t open all the ditches in the county, so we’ve been addressing them as they come up,” he said.

Earlier this month, local municipalities met with Houghton County Emergency Measures director Chris Van Arsdale to do short- and long-term plans for the watersheds. From that, each township developed a plan, working with local departments and Michigan Technological University, said Franklin Township Supervisor Mary Sears.

Van Arsdale did not return calls to provide details on the plans.

The Ripley Fire Department has been checking the Ripley Falls area, Sears said. A contractor is on call to take care of any work necessary to keep water away from homes or other important areas.

Residents are also involved in spotting early signs of flooding, she said.

Spring melting has been manageable so far, Sears said. Despite some softness on the ground at higher elevations, residents do not appear to be in danger, she said. Creek flows have also been promisingly mild.

The township was taking more planning measures at a meeting Wednesday. Among the actions the township plans to take is distributing booklets to residents on how to prepare for flooding.

Contractors are on call for blockages occurring in the stream, said Torch Lake Township Supervisor Brian Cadwell. Community corrections crews have also filled sandbags if they need to reroute water.

The township is monitoring the flow of water on the hillside, he said.

“That’s very difficult right now with the amount of snow in the woods and accessing those locations,” he said.

One location being scrutinized is near 10th Street in Hubbell.

“The inlets coming off the hillside are inadequately sized, and they block quickly,” Cadwell said.

The Department of Natural Resources worked late into the season last year attempting to correct problems with the trail grade to prevent erosion.

Evacuation plans are in place that would be put into action in case of severe flooding, Cadwell said.

“We have to wait and see what happens in certain locations,” Cadwell said. “There are contingencies to address there so people are safe. … property is second, human life is first.”

In Stanton Township, the biggest concern is Red Ridge Dam, where flood debris is blocking pipes, said Supervisor Marvin Heinonen.

“There’s so much debris that we’re a little concerned if those holes are plugged up, it’s going to come up over the top of the dam,” he said.

With largely built environment, Houghton has advantages over more remote townships, said city manager Eric Waara. He’s expecting the largest problem areas to be forested land where rivulets were cut in places that aren’t yet evident.

“When the snow melts, we get to see what the ground looks like,” he said.

Many people still haven’t grasped the magnitude of how a 1,000-year flood could reshape the landscape, Waara said.

“Everything’s different, whether it’s the way the groundwater runs under the soil and on top of the rock,” he said. “It might have gone to the left last June 16th, now it might go to the right, where your house might be.”