A bird stares intently, seemingly focused on an errant feather stuck to his beak.
But that’s not what this juvenile Bald Eagle is watching. Perched on the high bluff behind our Lake Allegan home, the raptor has a sweeping view of the water below. That view includes Eagle Island.
You can probably guess how that island got its name.
Eagle Island was formed 87 years ago when a hydro dam flooded the area. Viewed from my window, the Kalamazoo River’s main current flows past the far side of the island. Slower, shallower water flows between its north shore and our home. Here’s my early spring view:
What you see in this photo is an eagle magnet. The island’s old-growth trees provide sweeping views and tall perches for prey spotting. Our bluff, just a thousand feet away, offers a secondary vantage point. In between are ideal raptor hunting grounds.
That’s because fish are easy to spot in shallow water. Ducks and other waterfowl come to the area for the same reason, but it also makes them easy prey. When raptors approach, many water birds plunge for cover. But the island’s shallows limit their diving depth. That gives the eagles a great advantage.
These eagle hunting grounds are my nature haven. Armed with a zoom lens, I see sights never imagined during my city childhood. Sights that have opened my eyes and my heart to wildlife’s importance to our planet and to my own sense of wellbeing. During Covid’s long isolation, constant wildlife watching kept my eyes outdoors even as I was stuck inside.
Here’s a video showing some of the many birds drawn to the Eagle Island shallows. At about a minute and a half, it’s longer than what I usually post here. But I want you to get a good sense of the gift just outside my door. Because after the video, I’ll explain why this precious corner of nature may be in grave jeopardy.
The hydroelectric dam I mentioned earlier is called the Calkins Bridge Dam. Our power company, Consumers Energy, announced recently that in the next ten years, some of its hydro operating licenses will expire. That includes Calkins Bridge. The company is currently reviewing its thirteen hydro plants and states that ‘For each plant there are several potential results. [The review] could lead to a renewal of our operating license for 30 more years. It could also lead to replacing or removal of the plant. Transferring ownership is another possibility.’ On its website, Consumers acknowledges that Calkins Bridge has a low Federal Energy Regulation Commission hazard classification, meaning the dam is safe to continue operating.
In a recent community meeting, a Consumers Energy representative explained that the company loses money on its Calkins Bridge operation. After forty years in financial services, I can appreciate that challenge. Even so, I feel the company has a responsibility to our Lake Allegan community. At risk are not only wildlife venues, recreation such as boating and fishing, but also property values and the resulting tax base that supports schools and local government.
I titled this post From Shallows to Swamp? For good reason. If the dam is removed, the lake will revert to river, and no current will flow around what is now Eagle Island. Our home will likely border a floodplain or perhaps, a swamp. The shallows—our wonderful wildlife magnet—will be lost. Birds and other water creatures will still find food and homes on the river, but will I see them as I do now? Absolutely not.
I am optimistic that a lake-friendly solution will be found. For one thing, our lake (and some 80 miles of the Kalamazoo River) has PCBs embedded in the lake bottom, especially just behind the dam. These carcinogens entered the river decades ago when paper mills dumped waste there. They’re not a health hazard if left locked in the silt, but dam removal would send free-floating PCBs to waters and communities downriver, ending in Lake Michigan.
The current Calkins Bridge Dam license expires in 2040. At its community meeting, Consumers Energy presented a timeline stating that in ‘early 2023,’ its long-term hydro strategy will be developed. That means now is the time to make compelling arguments about community, clean energy, environmental protection, property values, and our area’s tax base.
I’ve written letters to appropriate government officials. I’m asking them to work with Consumers Energy and state and federal agencies to find a way to keep the dam in place, for the sake of our community and to prevent PCB migration. I have also volunteered to work with the Lake Allegan Association, a grass-roots organization whose mission is to shine a light on the dam question and to engage in productive discussion with all the relevant stakeholders, including community, corporate, and government.
If you are in southwest Michigan, will you join the organization and the discussion (link below)? We’re also looking for people and communities that have faced a similar dam-removal question, hoping to learn from others’ experiences. If that includes you, please comment here or reach out to me directly at carol (at) caroldoeringer (dot) com.
Thank you for hanging in there with this long post that’s a departure from my usual smitten-by-wildlife commentary. I usually end with recommendations for related children’s literature, but for the moment, nothing spot-on comes to mind. Look for that later!
A Consumers Energy web page explains its hydro license decision process.
Here’s a link to materials provided by Consumers Energy at their community meeting, with background about the Calkins Bridge dam and the company’s considerations for its ongoing hydro strategy.
The Lake Allegan Association welcomes members from our lake community as well as from the community at large.
Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.