JACKSON, Mich. — Elaine Wolf-Baker has lived in her home on Douglas Street near Cascades Park on and off since she was a child.
“I mean we’ve been here for four generations. We’ve tried to keep it nice,” Wolf-Baker said.
She gets briefly emotional talking about what the house means to her. She moved back from California part-time in 2005 to care for her mother. That's when she first noticed signs that something was not right with her family’s home.
“I really didn’t pay a lot of attention to the basement..." she said. "It seemed to be from the street out in front. Everyone was getting flooding. We thought the flooding was from the poor storm sewers out in front."
By 2014, she moved back to Jackson full-time and made it her mission to help her neighborhood fix the flooding. She formed the group Fix the Lagoons as a response.
“We all got together and decided to research what the problem was. In 2018, we couldn’t figure out the problem. We’re not civil engineers,” Wolf-Baker said.
During a meeting with the Jackson County drain commissioner, she overhead a separate meeting about the park and a discussion of how the lagoons were swelling up four to five feet higher. She says she became convinced then that the issue with the lagoons was causing the problems in surrounding homes.
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City and county officials are now working together to find why this neighborhood continues to have flooding problems.
“We’re still in the process of gathering data. We need Mother Nature to cooperate. Give us a little bit of rain. Maybe a little bit of not rain. We need to be able to turn on Hobo Fountain and the Splash Pad to gauge the effects of it. We need to turn them on. It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem,” Assistant County Administrator Christopher Bolt said.
Cascades Falls discharges 500 to 1,000 gallons of water per day. The Splash Pad discharges 135,000 gallons of water per day. Hobo Fountain discharges 720,000 gallons of water per day.
Hobo Fountain is a point of contention among the Fix the Lagoons group.
Wolf-Baker says it is not necessary to have it running as “not many people know it exists” and because of the sheer amount of water it discharges. Officials say each piece serves a purpose.
But Jackson County Civil Engineer Amelia McElhinney said it has been “concerning” to see high groundwater levels in the area even before the water features have been turned on for the season.
“The storm sewer infrastructure as it appears is for a much lower surface level, showing that it has exceeded what was anticipated when these systems were put in place,” McElhinney said. “As we’ve been installing groundwater monitoring wells we’ve been noticing surprisingly high groundwater levels even before Cascades Falls started running this past weekend.”
Rainfall and snowmelt may play a key role in this issue.
“It’s too early to tell concretely to give you a quantitative number of, ‘yes, this is how much Mother Nature contributes’ but it is enormous,” McElhinney said.
Meaning the flooding could turn out to be a more widespread issue in Jackson.
“We’ve seen throughout Jackson County, dare I say, record water levels but groundwater levels in certain levels of the community have been very, very high. We’ve got areas of stretches of road that seem to flood more easily than ever before. We are at the head of three major water systems. It could be a regional problem,” Bolt said.
The cause might not be a single factor, and local officials are wary of too-easy answers.
“What we wouldn’t want to do is to give confidence that that’s the answer that will solve the problem and then it doesn’t do anything because, in addition to creating a false sense of security, it doesn’t solve the problem,” McElhinney said.
She was brought on board by Jackson County last year as part of the large holistic study into these “complex” problems.
“This study was brought up to address resident concerns. That is of the utmost importance in addition to environmental health and safety,” McElhinney said. “We want to make sure we are addressing those concerns otherwise this study was for naught. We want to encourage the residents to be open with us as possible with any problems that they have been seeing. Any information they can give us I would welcome so we can understand all areas of the problem.”
The homes near Douglas Street, Kibby Road, and South West Avenue have structural damage from rising groundwater levels according to Wolf-Baker.
“Everybody here is having problems. Our floors are separating. There’s a two to three-inch gap between the floor and the floorboard. It’s really slanting down now because of the porch failure. The porch is sinking. It’s slanting down," she said.
On April 1, Jackson County Parks Department received a notice of violations from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
According to the notice, the county didn't have the required permits to discharge wastewater associated with Cascade Falls, the Splash Pad, and Hobo Fountain.
“We collaborated proactively with officials and took care of the necessary paperwork to button that up,” Bolt said. “What we discovered through our discussions with EGLE is that we did need to actually apply for permits. We promptly got started on that and issued those permit applications immediately. One of those has been issued from EGLE for operating Cascade Falls and the other two for the Splash Pad and Hobo Fountain are still under review and kind of in the public comment period.”
The Splash Pad was scheduled to be open for Memorial Day weekend but cannot run before the permit process is complete.
Bolt says he cannot speak as to why the permits were not filed but for other than the fact the Cascade Falls has been in place since 1932 and staff “probably did not think of it as an issue.”
Wolf-Baker, who spoke on behalf of her neighbors, said they don’t have a problem with Cascades Park, as they “grew up with the park,” but something needs to be done now to avoid future problems.
“We would like for them to not start flooding us again. What they’re saying is they have to flood us again because they can’t look at the monitoring wells unless they flood us. I don’t think that’s really accurate. I think they can look at the monitoring wells closer to the lagoons and they can see how they’re rising,” Wolf-Baker said.
“The last thing we want to do is intentionally flood the residents. If we know a way to stop it we will stop it,” McElhinney said.
County officials say what they're doing is a long-term study.
"These ground monitoring wells will be in for quite some time, many years. We hope to continue to take readings and watch to see especially after some of the fixes are implemented if it’s helping,” Bolt said. “We work for our community and we’re trying to be good stewards of public resources all the way around and trying to do that right thing.”
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