The Lake Kathleen Dam in Pellston, located on private property near Burt and Douglas Lakes, is slated to be removed in spring of 2018. The dam is failing, and its removal will not only removal a liability concern, but also will improve the wildlife habitat of the Maple River.

New owners Rick and Lucy Holton recently purchased the property and decided to work with the Conservation Resource Alliance (CRA) of Traverse City to remove the dam, which would drain the associated Lake Kathleen. CRA has overseen several projects removing other dams along the Maple River. The group’s “Free Span the Maple River” initiative seeks to restore the river, improving habitat for fish and other wildlife. Chris Pierce of the CRA is leading the Lake Kathleen dam project.

This dam at Lake Kathleen, located on private property, will be removed next year in a project overseen by the Conservation Resource Alliance.

The dam at Lake Kathleen has existed for more than 130 years, changing owners several times during its history. In about 1884, the first dam was built on the site to power a sawmill. From 1892 to 1897, the dam was used to manufacture shingles. In 1901, dam was modified to produce hydroelectricity; by 1938 Cheboygan Electric Company owned the plant, which eventually was owned by Consumers Power.

Over the years, the dam wasn’t maintained, and by 1951 the dam failed, causing the waters of Lake Kathleen to flood the neighboring Woodland Road. In the 1960s, the dam was rebuilt and the associated lake was reestablished for recreational purposes. Then owner Ken McLaughlin intended to develop the area with homes and a golf course.

In 1997, Jim “Packy” Offield purchased the property, and in 2014, he started plans to remove it. After he passed away, the Holts purchased the property and continued his vision for removal. The dam now serves no functional purpose, and sinkholes forming next to the concrete near the road crossing are raising concerns. In fact, recently in 2014, the dam almost failed because of particularly high waters, said Pierce.

CRA, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Fish and Wildlife Service, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians are all working closely to ensure that the dam is removed safely and the surrounding area is monitored before and after the dam is removed. Scientists and students at the nearby University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) are also taking advantage of this unique research opportunity, using the dam as the setting for numerous class and graduate research projects. The stakeholders are working closely to curate and share information about the Maple River; analyzing the area pre-removal and recording the geomorphology, biology, and botany of the area. And starting in 2018, the effects of dam removal will be closely studied, as changes are carefully tracked. 

Lake Kathleen, shown here, will slowly be drained when a privately-owned dam is removed.

In June of 2017, CRA held a meeting at UMBS to share with the public the plans for removing the Lake Kathleen Dam. About 100 interested citizens from the local area attended, asking questions about how the area would be affected. Overall, nearby properties should not be affected by the dam being removed. 

The lake will be drained slowly over a period of four months, about six inches a day, according to CRA. The more slowly the water from the lake can be removed, the more sediment from the dam impoundment that will be left in place and not washed down the river. Property owners downstream of Lake Kathleen will not see a rush of sediment in the river.

Nearby property owners raised concerns about whether removing the dam will affect the water level of the Maple River and Douglas Lake. Removing the dam will not increase the level of the Maple River. Moreover, the water level of Douglas Lake (from which the East Branch of the Maple River flows) should not be affected, either.

As part of the project, a new timber bridge road crossing will be installed at Woodland Road and other locations to allow the Maple River to flow more easily. Timber bridges are cheaper to construct, can be built by the county road commission crew, and are more aesthetically pleasing to many. A timber bridge like the one that will be installed at Woodland Road was installed recently at Robinson Road, with which community members may be familiar.

While Lake Kathleen is a favorite local spot for swimming and fishing, the removal of the dam will actually improve the habitat for fish like brook trout, according to the DNR. 

UMBS students have been collecting data along the Maple River this summer, including this group of students in the Biology and Ecology of Fishes class that are shown electroshocking fish during a river survey.

As part of the project, CRA will also install a small coffer dam that will be used as a sea lamprey barrier. The dam will be short enough to allow spawning fish passage through the river, while keeping sea lamprey out of new areas.

Throughout 2017, CRA will finalize the design plans for removing the dam and will solicit bids for the work. As long as things go according to plan, deconstruction will occur in 2018. Once the dam is removed, the area will be monitored in the future. 

After Lake Kathleen is drained, CRA will prep the old lakebed site for shoreline habitat restoration. One to two years after the lake is drained, grasses, sedges, and other plants will recolonize the area. About 10 years after drainage, shrubs and small trees will begin growing along the riverbanks.

For more information about the Lake Kathleen Dam removal project, or to be notified of future public meetings, contact the Conservation Resource Alliance at (231) 946-6817 or visit rivercare.org.