Water infrastructure has been in the news over the last several years. Climate change is putting unprecedented pressure on aging infrastructure, bringing with it stories and images of floods, sink holes and erosion. In Michigan, Drain Commissioners play a crucial role managing water resources, moving water away from buildings and properties, ensuring public health, safety and economic activity. In 2016, Kent County’s current Drain Commissioner, Bill Byl, will conclude 10 years of service as Drain Commissioner and his 30 year career as a public servant. Commissioner Byl’s retirement will create an open seat for the position of Drain Commissioner. April 19th, 2016 is the final day to file for office to run for the seat.
Michigan’s drain code was last updated in 1956 and codifies the job of Drain Commissioner. The work of Drain Commissioners plays out in two key roles:
1) Managing Surface Water – Drain Commissioners lay out drainage districts, manage the construction and maintenance of drains, sewers, pumping equipment, bridges, culverts, fords and the structures and mechanical devices that allow the flow of water into drains for flood control and water management.
2) Financing Water Infrastructure and Maintenance through Drain Districts Assessments – The Drain Commissioner holds the capacity to set up water management districts and sub-districts, and to assess and collect taxes to invest in construction and maintenance of infrastructure to move water away from properties and into channels that contribute water to the community’s streams and rivers.
Some say that the Drain Commissioner’s ability to assess for water management makes it the most powerful position in the state of Michigan. But despite this power, most folks know very little about the role of the Drain Commissioner.
Commissioner Byl is well regarded among his colleagues in public office for his professionalism and diplomacy, problem solving skills and his ability to bring resources to the table. His own background is in surveying and civil engineering as well as public office, having served in the Michigan House of Representatives for several years in the middle of his career. Byl reports that Drain Commissioners across the state come from a variety of backgrounds. Commissioners most commonly come from one of two backgrounds, 1. Public finance and administration, or 2. Construction and/or engineering backgrounds. Drain Commissioner Brenda Moore, who is currently serving in Muskegon County notes her preference for Drain Commissioners with backgrounds in natural resource management.
In Kent County, the Drain Commissioiner’s staff is made up of five (including the Drain Commissioner) and manages 536 miles of County Drain and 356 stormwater detention ponds. The annual operating budget for the drain commissioner’s office is just under $650,000 per year (2016 Adopted Budget, Kent County, p25). In addition to the operating budget, the Drain Commissioner manages grants, assessments and bonds that support large scale projects. The Kent County Drain Commissioner’s Office responds to approximately 500 complaints annually and conducts about 200 field visits annually; Commissioner Byl estimates he personally responds to about 50% of the field visits. The Drain Commissioner serves as project manager for 20-30 maintenance projects annually from bank rehabilitation to full scale rehabilitation projects. But the real work is in solving large scale problems, some of which have taken as many as 7 years to complete. Much of the work must be approved and permitted by the Michigan Department of Environment Quality (MDEQ), specifically wetland and inland lakes and streams, thus, understanding the regulatory system is also an important factor in the position.
Both Moore and Byl state that there is a significant need for education and transparency in drain offices across the state. Moore stated that a Drain Commissioner must have, “The nerve to be able to assess drain fees, the communications and diplomacy skills to educate the public and coordinate diverse stakeholders, coupled with an understanding of the stream ecosystem impacts of their decisions”.
Specific to Kent County, Byl sees that the county’s next Drain Commissioner will need to face complex challenges in the coming years. Climate change impacts are visible for this leader who spends a lot of time on the ground paying attention to rainfall and stormwater. He sees that major storms are coming more frequently and are more intense. Byl knows that this dynamic will create increased demand on the office of Drain Commissioner. “There will be a time when Kent County will need a stormwater authority and the county will have to ramp up staffing in the drain office”, stated Commissioner Byl.
Green infrastructure is needed to create a distributed system of stormwater management, but with that distributed system comes a new level of maintenance and the demand for different skills sets – biologists, landscape architects, landscape maintenance and more. In Michigan, using green infrastructure will be complex because our freeze and thaw weather will require redundant grey infrastructure systems to move water when the ground is frozen and green infrastructure doesn’t work as well.
Development in Kent County is also becoming increasingly complex. While the Drain Commissioner cannot stop local municipal plans to develop, the drain office does have significant influence in how development happens. In Byl’s estimation, most of the ‘easy to develop’ properties are already in place, pushing developers into more complex development sites, which require additional attention and stormwater management infrastructure.
Grand River Flood Walls, Rapids Restoration and Activation is perhaps the epitome of these increasingly complex development projects in Kent County. The Drain Commissioner has bonded $17 Million dollars for the City of Grand Rapids to implement floodwall maintenance and upgrades to comply with requirements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The bond will support proven, innovative flood management solutions that are engineered and designed to capture more stormwater and protect downtown buildings from flooding. Complimentary projects funded through other sources will be aligned to create opportunities for the restoration of rapids in the river and increased access to the river to support activation.
Long awaited federal stormwater management regulations are also expected to come down the pike within the scope of the next Drain Commissioner’s four-year term. These new National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits will require local governments to capture more stormwater in order to better protect the waters of the state from pollution and erosion.
Finally, there is growing awareness across the political spectrum that the Michigan Drain Code is in need of review. Further, that the role of the Drain Commissioner could be expanded for integrated management of water quality in addition to the traditional role of providing water conveyance. In June of 2015, the Office of the Great Lakes Water Strategy called to, “Evaluate and implement necessary changes to laws including state and local land use statutes, as well as the Michigan Drain Code, to create a more integrated, watershed based system for managing water at the landscape level and achieving water quantity and quality outcomes.” The Office of the Great Lakes recommends creating an advisory body in 2016 and completing recommendations for changes by 2018. (Sustaining Michigan’s Heritage, A Strategy for the Next Generation, p68).
Water defines the culture of our state in so many ways. Protecting water is a value that is shared across these two amazing peninsulas we call home. Protecting our freshwater resources is a critical strategy to sustain economic competitiveness and quality of life for both today and tomorrow. The office of Drain Commissioner is one that Michiganders should watch carefully in every West Michigan County. It is in this seat that future of our freshwater will be defined.