The Culvert King of Acme Township
It’s hard to miss Dick Mallery’s driveway on Lautner Road in Acme Township. It’s littered with puddles, ruts and ravines – signs of a waterfall that flows here all too often.
In the past, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission has thrown gravel on top of it. But now Mallery says it’s washed out three times in the last nine months.
On July 26, when the culvert upstream was overwhelmed, Mallery filmed Acme Creek surging over Lautner Road and straight towards his property. It happened again just a week and a half later.
He says he’s seen more than a dozen washouts like this in the 52 years he’s lived here, and he’s fed up with quick fixes.
“Stop putting band-aids on a broken leg,” Mallery said. “Fixing my driveway with cheap gravel … is like putting lipstick on a pig.”
What he wants from the road commission is a bigger culvert to guide Acme Creek under Lautner Road. He says the current culvert is like “putting a firehose through a soda straw.”
But this is where Mallery and his local government disagree. Jay Saksewski is the road commission superintendent. He’s one of many in his department that have gotten an earful from Mallery.
“Don’t get me wrong, I understand the frustration,” Saksewski said. “Having any sort of property damage done to you, that’s disheartening.”
But he says replacing the culvert isn’t a top priority.
“For the last 30 years, relatively speaking, it’s functioned,” Saksewski said. “When things are functioning, that’s not something we tend to go out and readily replace.”
Mallery’s talks with the road commission haven’t produced the solution he’s looking for, so he’s been calling every elected official he can think of. Say what you want about his brash approach, but Dick Mallery is determined.
“I’m just confident that the culvert will get fixed,” Mallery said. “And then they'll never have to fix my driveway again.”
But even replacing a culvert is just a bandaid, if it’s not designed to withstand the new normal.
Michigan is home to more than 36,000 miles of streams, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). Where those streams meet roads, a culvert’s job is to let water flow freely underneath.
But as rain falls harder and streams run higher, a once-adequate culvert can be undersized.
Daniel Wright is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin. He leads a research group that produces rainfall statistics for current and future climate conditions.
“There’s every reason to expect these kinds of storms are going to continue to get worse,” Wright said. “The air is becoming warmer, and that means there’s more water in the atmosphere that can fall out as extreme rainfall.”
Wright added that current infrastructure standards don’t typically take that into account. Today’s standards are based on historical records of rainfall and streamflow dating back to the early 1900s. Those records are where terms like “100-year storm” are derived.
“Those are no longer good indications of what the likelihood of big storms are now,” said Wright. “We’re not ready.”
In Northern Wisconsin, they learned that the hard way.
A massive storm in 2016 sent a surge of rainwater thundering towards the south shore of Lake Superior. Thirty-five million dollars in federal relief aid was spent replacing roads and culverts. But the problem was those replacements used the same old design standards.
Based on historical data, the flooding in 2016 was a “thousand year storm,” but a comparable rainfall event happened just two years later. Many of the same culverts were washed out and replaced again.
John Lauman is the director of the Northwest Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, where he’s working on flood preparation. He says replacing culverts in kind — with the same specifications as the former culvert — won’t solve the problem.
If we continue to try to go down the same road we’ve been going down, … we’re not gaining anything,” Laumann said. “We’re actually losing ground.”
Northwest Wisconsin is made up of small, rural communities. They don’t have the funds to put in bigger, better infrastructure at will. But Laumann says something’s got to change.
“Resiliency has become a bit of a buzzword in our area when it comes to flooding,” Laumann said. “That’s the focal point, that’s what everybody is focusing on: how do we increase resiliency?”
To answer that question, they might look east to New York’s Adirondack Mountains. In 2011, their roadways were demolished by Tropical Storm Irene.
Kelley Tucker is the director of the Ausable River Association, a conservation group in the Adirondacks. She saw firsthand the destruction wrought by Irene.
“The damage was just really overwhelming here,” Tucker said.
Even before the storm, Tucker’s group had identified problematic stream crossings. After Irene, they were sure it was time for a change.
“Unfortunately, that storm graphically validated our findings,” Tucker said.
The Ausable River Association made a database of undersized culverts in their watershed. They collaborated with their local branch of The Nature Conservancy, which had been making regional climate models for several years. Using that data, they came up with a new standard for design: something Tucker calls a “climate-ready culvert.”
Flooding starts when a river reaches what hydrologists call “bank full.” Tucker’s climate ready culverts are sized at 125 percent of bank-full.
Culverts of that size cost at least $100,000 each to build. But Tucker says, even for cash-strapped communities, it’s well worth the investment.
“They don’t have to fix it again for 75 to 100 years if we do our job right,” Tucker said. “They don’t have to worry about it in a storm, and it saves property.”
The cost for those projects was shared between Tucker’s organization and The Nature Conservancy, as well as federal, state and local governments. And now, a similar cost-share solution might be underway for Lautner Road.
Dick Mallery continued making calls to Grand Traverse County officials. He made the right call when he got a hold of Andy Smits, the county drain commissioner.
Smits did his research on Mallery’s property and the Acme Creek culvert. He then presented his findings at a road commission meeting in August. Mallery was there too, but he let Smits do the talking.
One slide had a graphic from the Watershed Center of Grand Traverse Bay, a local nonprofit that advocates for clean water and stream restoration. Much like the assessments done in the Adirondacks, this map showed stream crossings at risk of flooding. By a number of culverts there was a red dot—including the Acme Creek culvert.
“They made the evaluation that it was code red,” Smits told the board. “That’s the highest priority for replacement.”
Smits told the crowded room that the center is applying for a grant through the Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment, or EGLE. The grant funds projects like culvert replacements. And the Watershed Center wants to use the money to upgrade the culvert in question.
The pre-proposal submittal was approved by EGLE. It’s a tier one priority, which means it has the highest priority for funding.
This bodes well for Acme creek, Lautner road, and Mallery’s driveway. But it’s not a done deal yet.
The estimated cost of the project is roughly $240,000. And the watershed center needs a partner that’s going to provide a 25 percent match– about $60,000.
Even if the project is a success, Andy Smits says Grand Traverse County has a problem a lot bigger than one culvert on Acme creek.
“We’re designing our infrastructure to withstand three inches of rain in 24 hours,” Smits said. “When you get six inches of rain in five hours, that pipe is not going to transmit the water. The water’s going to find an alternative route.”
Smits says it’s critical that the status quo starts to change.
“I hope we’re getting to a point where public policy around design standards and cost-benefit is going to be revisited,” Smits said.
Dick Mallery, the self-described “culvert king of Acme Township” is going to keep pushing toward that point.
“You must be the change you want to see in the world,” Mallery said. “And I will be the change I wish to see in the road commission. You just stay tuned.”
This episode is a rerun. It originally aired Sept. 10, 2021.