By Sterling McGinn

More than 50 lake residents and other concerned citizens filled the Luce County Courtroom to hear the future of regulations and possible lake levels in a number of lakes within Luce and Mackinac Counties. The meeting was held jointly between the Luce and Mackinac County boards of commissioners on Monday, March 4 at 4 p.m.

The chief presenter that afternoon was Stacy Hissong, a lawyer from Fahey, Schultz Burzych Rhodes. Her firm represents the Michigan Association of County Drain Commissioners as general and legal counsel. Also present was Luke O’Brien, an engineer from Spicer Group, which has worked with many lake level and dam projects throughout the state.

Lengthy discussions centered around Big Manistique Lake due to last summer’s water level, which has been the center of controversy with many lake residents disputing the height. Currently, the set level for Big Manistique Lake is 686.0 above sea level. This level was set by a Circuit Court order in 1978, and by law, the lake is to be maintained at this level. The order does not contain a winter draw-down level or variation levels if a drought or flood occurs.

Luce County and Mackinac County are in the beginning stages for reviewing the lake level and delegated authority for Big Manistique Lake. The decision needed to be made jointly because the body of water is located within both counties. Luce will be separately reviewing North Manistique (Round Lake) and Mackinac County is reviewing South Manistique Lake, Millecoquins Lake and Brevoort Lake. Hissong’s firm is working with both counties to begin the process of reconstructing their regulations.

“I have worked trying to give county board of commissioners more information and more transparency about their responsibilities in regard to lake levels in the last few years, mainly due to the Midland Dam failure,” Hissong said. “Schoolcraft County contacted our office regarding issues they were having with some of the established lake levels in their lakes.”

She also noted that EGLE (Environment Great Lakes and Energy) had listed Schoolcraft County as the designated authority for Big Manistique Lake, which isn’t the case. “I think because EGLE told them that they were the delegated authority, Schoolcraft has been inspecting the dam on your behalf for the last several inspections, but they are not doing that anymore,” explained Hissong.

The dam structure for Big Manistique Lake was constructed in 1978, approximately two miles down the Manistique River in Schoolcraft County replacing an old wood structure built in 1948. The property on which the dam was built is owned by Luce County and is regulated by both Luce and Mackinac Counties. Though not technically Schoolcraft’s responsibility, their board has been paying the inspection fees for the structure every three years. Inspections by a professional engineer is a requirement every three years due to the structure being a low-hazard dam.

During the public comment section of the meeting, lake resident Brad Dufort told the commissioners that he felt the lake is low. “We have lost close to a foot since fall,” he said. “We are going to have to buy 200 extra feet of dock to accommodate the boards that got pulled.”

Lake resident and resort owner Mike Soder feels the water levels are too high and is causing shoreline damage.

“I have lived on the lake my whole life—yes we are in a drought situation right now—the whole Midwest is,” explained Soder. “You want to look at the pictures from the 50s, 60, 70s, the docks went out into that lake 100 to 200 feet. I have a resort and I have lost so much beach from high water the last 50 years it is ridiculous, but unfortunately people want to be able to walk right out and take off into their boats.”

Big Manistique Lake resident Tom Bronz presented both boards with a photo of his shoreline taken that day showing what he believes as the water level being too low.

“Your physical lake level should match your legal level,” said Hissong. “You should not operate outside of that legal level.”

In her presentation, Hissong explained the Inland Lake Level Act (Part 307) of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. Counties have jurisdiction of lake levels under Part 307.

She noted that there are other lakes in the state that also have inter-county lake levels similar to the Big Manistique situation. Lake levels are set by court orders and the levels are by law required to be maintained at the set level. The act also allows for orders to contain seasonal levels for winter and summer. Lakes cannot have a draw-down without seasonal levels specified in the court order or a permit from EGLE.

“For the older lake level orders, we are adding in special assessment districts,” explained Hissong. “If costs are incurred by the county for operations, inspections and maintenance of that lake can be assessed to property owners as part of the special assessment district. None of your lakes have special assessment districts.”

Circuit courts set the boundaries of who is in the special assessment districts. “I think people get confused with about that, it is not a tax, not a fee, we are not looking at who boats on the lake, we are looking at who owns property and benefits from having a lake level.”

Portage Township clerk Pat Maclachlan said that a special assessment district was established on Big Manistique Lake in the early 1980s around the time the lave level was reestablished. She wasn’t sure if the district was created by the townships or the counties but will pass along her documentation and information to Hissong and Spicer Group.

Hissong recommended that the county boards create a designated authority for Big Manistique Lake and set up a special assessment district. If a different lake level is desired, the matter will need to be brought to circuit court and may require work of an engineer.

The first step that both counties took in reconstructing the lake level and dam regulations was creating a designated authority to maintain and monitor the dam boards. It was also recommended to create an operation manual to be transparent on the operation of the dam and regular measurement of the lakes should also take place.

Both boards voted to pass a resolution creating a delegated authority to operate the day-to-day operations of the Big Manistique Lake dam. The authority will include seven individuals: one commissioner from each county, a representative appointed by the Lakefield and Portage Township boards and three individuals at-large who own property on the lake or has deeded access to the lake. The three at-large members will need to apply for the committee and will be appointed by the top four authority members. The committee members will be elected to a term of 4 years with expirations set on a staggered basis.

The resolution also included the commissioners retaining the legal firm and Spicer Group until the delegated authority for Big Manistique Lake is officially formed and finalized. The authority will then decide whether they want to continue working with the two entities. The legal counsel will file a petition to allow for updating the court order and will set up a special assessment district.

For North Manistique Lake, the lake has a set level with a winter and summer level included in the order, however, there is no special assessment district. The Luce County Road Commission is the delegated authority for the structure. “EGLE communicated to me that they think you are running it too high, but your road commission says you’re not,” Hissong stated. “The last inspection report indicated that it was in good condition.”

Some leakage will require some maintenance, and she recommends a special assessment district and a confirmation of the ownership of the land, or if an easement is necessary. The legal levels for the summer and for winter will be reviewed to make sure they match the court ordered levels.

The Luce County Commissioners tabled the Round Lake matter until discussion with the road commission take place.

The additional Mackinac County Lake levels were also discussed. Hissong said that they had not yet reviewed the lake level orders for Millecoquins and Brevoort Lakes. The orders and resolutions will take place at a later meeting.

“EGLE has communicated that they have had complaints on South Manistique Lake,” Hissong said. “You don’t have an established lake level, so whoever owns the water control structure, if they’re manipulating that, that may be an EGLE violation. You don’t have jurisdiction, and maybe in the future you might want to take jurisdiction of that structure.”

Hissong told both boards that the process of reviewing the orders and water control structures is a long process, but this meeting was the first step in getting the process going.