Muskegon County’s Drain Commissioner: What do Drain Commissioners do?
County Drain Commissioners have the responsibility of administering the State of Michigan’s Drain Code, Act 40 of 1956. This is a law that amended and codified drain law which was first passed in the late 1800s. Among other things the State Drain Code lays out strict processes for taking action on drain projects.
In the mid-1800s, people were fearful of coming to live in Michigan because of water-borne diseases such as malaria, cholera, and yellow fever. Because Michigan once had large systems of “swamps” it was thought that the establishment of drainage systems was necessary for public health. Drainage systems (most of them open ditches) were initially installed and maintained by property owners; but conflict soon arose between landowners when the action of one owner negatively impacted another. To provide broader oversight, Michigan’s townships took control of the drain systems around the 1860s. Later, the legislature changed state law to create an office for one countywide elected official.
Early in Michigan’s history drain projects were built to relieve flooding and to make land more suitable for agriculture and development. Although most projects made life more convenient for a new state and its growing population, drain projects in the past were responsible for a significant amount of environmental degradation that included draining vast amounts of wetlands, channelizing (straightening) natural streams, and negatively impacting important wildlife habitat. Fortunately, modern Drain Commissioners strive to balance the need for proper drainage with environmental quality and natural resource management. They are also becoming much more involved in surface water quality primarily through better stormwater management.
Today, Muskegon County has over 100 established county drains that encompass over 216 miles of open storm drains and 21 miles of enclosed storm drains. Additionally, there are some 200 stormwater detention facilities under the authority of the Drain Commissioner. The majority of the County’s drainage districts were established in the early 1900s, so much of the work of this office is maintaining existing systems. Not all drains that you see, however, are under the Drain Commissioner’s jurisdiction; some are County Road Commission roadside ditches, and many others are private.
In addition to drain oversight, Drain Commissioners can be involved in:
- Lake level establishment and maintenance;
- Lake Boards that are formed to address lake management issues such as nuisance aquatic vegetation and algae;
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s stormwater permit requirements (administered by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality);
- Site plan review as it pertains to stormwater management;
- Water pollution abatement by reducing illicit discharges into county drains.
Protect Water Quality
Unmitigated stormwater runoff is the Nation’s #1 Water Quality problem—as reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With EPA oversight, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) requires that units of government, which hold NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permits for stormwater discharges, uphold certain standards for their management. The County, through the Offices of the Drain Commission and the Road Commission, holds NPDES stormwater permits. The cities of Muskegon, Norton Shores, Muskegon Heights, Roosevelt Park, and North Muskegon also hold similar NPDES permits. Most Muskegon County municipalities collaborate to meet MDEQ requirements through the Muskegon Area Municipal Stormwater Committee (MAMSWC). The Drain Commissioner is a member of that group.
Unmanaged stormwater can carry a variety of pollutants to surface water including:
- petroleum-based products, metals, nutrients, and heated water from pavement;
- herbicides, pesticides, and nutrients from lawns and fields;
- soil eroded from construction sites and farmland (which can contain manure, fertilizer, pesticides and other chemicals).
High volumes of untreated storm or melt water rushing to receiving bodies (lakes and streams) further degrade water quality and wildlife habitat by changing natural water temperatures. For example, a change in just a couple of degrees in water temperature can eliminate trout from an existing stream. Surges in water also scour soil from water channels and deposit soil sediment into stream habitat. Sediment can smother fish spawning areas and food sources and undermine and uproot trees that stabilize banks (sometimes increasing flood hazards in the process). Sediment also clogs culverts, catch basins, and other stormwater control features potentially damaging property and costing owners significant money.
In an area with such a wealth of surface water--and a dependence on tourism for our economy-- it is critical to make a concerted effort to improve and maintain good water quality and appropriate water quantity throughout Muskegon County.
Your Drain Commissioner
As with most counties in Michigan, Muskegon County’s Drain Commissioner is an elected official. In my case, however, I was appointed when the post was vacated by the loss of the former Drain Commissioner, David Fisher. I took office November 7, 2013. David’s tenure brought a new level of activity to the office, including the organization of historic files, computerization of map files (thereby allowing on-line access), and partnering in special water quality initiatives. I intend to honor many important projects that he started in addition to identifying other opportunities for improving services to Muskegon County’s citizens.
Short Terms Goals for the Drain Commissioner’s Office
In addition to numerous outstanding projects, this office will be working on the following in 2014:
- Designing petitioned drain projects by considering value-added features, environmental stewardship, and a longer life span for drain infrastructure.
- Developing standards for stormwater calculations for site plan review to improve water quality and provide a level of reliability for developers and property owners.
- Seeking state and county grants with other partners to leverage the resources of this office.
- Correcting boundaries of drain districts under the newly instituted PA (Public Act) 261 of 2013 to more accurately reflect true drainage patterns. For example, some drain districts include large tracts of land on assessment rolls that do not belong there. Likewise, some land is not included in some districts that should be.
- Better organizing historic files and completing computerized scanning of key legal documents to be more efficient with finding and providing records.
- Completing computerized maps of each drain district for better records and swifter action when work needs to be completed.
- Preparing fair and appropriate assessments for completed drain projects in addition to evaluating ways to fund future projects without inflicting “sticker shock” on benefiting property owners.
- Implementing Michigan Department of Environmental Quality “Post Construction” requirements with local Stormwater Committee members.
I look forward to working with the residents of Muskegon County and welcome your input. You may contact me at my office; 724-6219 or via email at
Brenda M. Moore