Clinton River Water Levels: An Integrated Assessment

clinton river-DSC_0647-390px
While it may seem like rivers flow wild and free, many are highly managed, particularly those that run through developed areas. The upper reaches of the Clinton River, for example, include a number of lakes with dams and water control structures that interrupt natural flow and block fish from moving freely throughout the watershed.

Michigan Sea Grant funded a research team to investigate the causes, consequences and correctives for interrupted flows in the Clinton River that affect fish and wildlife habitat and recreational uses in the Clinton River watershed.

The Clinton River runs through Southeast Michigan starting in Springfield Township in Oakland County and wending its way to Lake St. Clair through Macomb, Lapeer and St. Clair counties. Starting in 2009, the team focused on assessing the biological impact of the changing flow as well as bringing together different groups of concerned people affected by the changing water levels.


The Issue

Clinton River DSC_0722In developed areas, many of the lakes that are created by dams are surrounded by homes. Most of those lakes have a court-authorized water level that is set independently of other lakes in the system and the downstream receiving waters. When lake levels are adjusted in one lake, the result is often a sudden, drastic reduction of water flow downstream. Although regulatory agencies are legally required to make these water level adjustments, the abrupt changes in river flow harms fish, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.

Additionally, the way the levels are managed can put stakeholders on opposite sides of the issues; residents often have contrasting opinions about lake level control depending on where they are located in the watershed.

For example, lakefront property owners tend to prefer set lake levels to optimize recreational opportunities in the summer (primarily boating) and minimize property damage risk (flooding, ice, etc.). Conversely, riverfront property owners and users desire additional flow in the summer months for recreational, environmental and aesthetic benefits.

Restoring a more natural flow regime could help offset the environmental issues of a managed river, while also easing if not resolving conflict between stakeholder groups.


More About the Project

Don Carpenter of Lawrence Technological University led the research team. The team compiled and assessed existing environmental, economic and social information, while also gathering public input through a series of meetings and a survey.

Next, the team developed a simplified mass-balance hydrologic model to represent how the watershed and series of control structures interact. They used the model to test new ways to manage water levels in the lakes with dams and water control structures. To address the human dimensions of river management, the team developed a socio-economic model to evaluate alternative management scenarios.

Key Findings

In addition to raising awareness of the many consequences of the current water management system in the Clinton River, the research team reported the following conclusions.

Environmental Analysis:

  • Current court-ordered lake levels were harming the overall health of the watershed.
  • More natural flows in the Clinton River will improve:
    • Water quality in the river;
    • Plant communities in and along the river;
    • Amphibian populations, macro-invertebrate communities, and fish spawning habitat;
    • Fishing and wildlife viewing in river and lakes; and
    • Endangered species and species of concern found within the study area.


Socio-economic Analysis:

  • Clinton River watershed provides valuable services (recreation, aesthetics, etc.) to businesses and households.
  • Stakeholders would accept moderate lake level fluctuations if it benefited the overall health of the lakes and river.
  • The water management changes evaluated by this project would not result in any adverse effects to people who use or live along the lakes. For example, there would be no damage to shoreline homes.
  • Maintaining steady flows in the Clinton River would provide more recreational opportunities, generating millions of dollar in additional revenue from kayaking and fishing.


Hydrologic Analysis:

  • The Oakland County Water Resource Commission use a great deal of resources to manage the complex network of water control structures in the Clinton River watershed.
  • High and low river flows can be influenced by lake level management.
  • Rapid release of water from an impounded lake (caused by a dam) after rainfall events creates unnaturally high peak flows and flashiness in the river.
  • Delaying the release of rainfall events of 2 inches or less could reduce the peak flow in the Clinton River by 15% to 20% and reduce the potential for flooding downstream.
  • After a rain event, if excess lake water is steadily released over two weeks, water flow can be maintained in the Clinton River without extreme dry periods.
  • Relatively small changes to the existing water management system can create more natural flows in the Clinton River and improve water temperatures, channel morphology and the overall health of the watershed’s lakes and rivers.


Results of the Project: Guiding Decisions

The research team offered specific recommendations to the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioners Office on how management of dam-created lakes could be modified to restore more natural flows in the river. Subsequently, the commissioner has used research findings to inform management of the complex Clinton River system.

For example, Oakland County began piloting new water management strategies in lakes that the hydrological model identified as having extra storage capacity. Residents and recreation enthusiasts have already reported improvements downstream in the river. Furthermore, decision makers reported an improved understanding of options available for modifying water management without upsetting residential stakeholders.

This research effort also provides a case study for other similar watersheds across the Great Lakes region that are struggling to restore river ecosystems, better manage dammed lakes and avoid both drought and flooding in the watershed. The hydrological model and the graphics are now being applied to the Huron River, where the local watershed council is partnering with the University of Michigan to conduct a similar integrated assessment about river flows and climate scenarios.


Project Details

Using an Integrative Approach to Restore a Natural Flow Regime in the Clinton River Watershed
Grant Number: R/CGLH-3
Grant Period: 2/1/2009 – 7/31/2012
Sea Grant Funding: $138,904
Matching Funds: $89,243

Final Report: Clinton River IA Report

Featured Publications