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.
Bacause Drain Commissioners have been around since the mid-1800s they were exempt from laws protecting the environment. They did not have to obtain wetland or inland lakes and streams permits nor follow soil erosion control practices to protect natural resources bacause many of these laws were passed in the 1970s. When I took office in 2013, amendments to state law eliminated many of these exemptions.
It is still critical to maintain good drainage to protect public health and property, but Drain Commissioners must now also consider environmental impacts and water quality. In fact, many counties have changed the office name to “Water Resources Commissioner.”
My education and professional experience is in Natural Resource Management; following are the guiding principles for this office:
- Good surface water quality is paramount to Muskegon County’s economy, public safety, and quality of life.
- The need for drainage must be balanced with stewardship and a consideration of future generations.
- Investments are made for longevity, not expediency, which results in a long-term cost savings and longer life
span of the investment.
- We must use creative approaches to reduce costs by seeking project partners, grants, etc.
- Most county drains in Muskegon County are the headwaters of major stream systems, all of which discharge into coastal inland lakes; i.e., Muskegon Lake, Mona Lake, Bear Lake, Duck Lake, and White Lake.
- Many drains are altered creeks and when work is conducted, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality requires the use of best management practices, some of which include stream restoration measures.
- The Drain Code requires an engineer to have some involvement in the majority of drain projects to prevent downstream damage of drain systems and natural water bodies.
Common Misconceptions about the Drain Office
- All drain projects are funded only through special assessments. Currently under state law, only the salaries of the Drain Commissioner and the Deputy are allotted from the county general fund. The County Board, County Road Commission, local units of government, (and sometimes the Michigan Department of Transportation), however, pay assessments. No state or federal funds are provided to this office.
- Not every drain in the county is a county drain under the authority of this office. We receive many complaints about drainage that actually pertain to road drains or private drains. Also, many people do not understand that the road culvert at their driveway is their responsibility, not the Road Commission’s or Drain Commissioner’s.
- Property owners may not dig or work in county drains without the express permission of the drain office. Considering the liability of downstream impacts and now, changes to environmental laws, it is unwise for property owners to put themselves in that position.
- Prior to 2010, the drain office had up to five full-time staff and several seasonal workers (some consisted of jail crew). That is no longer the case. The Drain Commissioner and her Deputy run the office. Clerical support was voluntarily given up to help offset part of the county’s assessments. Currently, we coordinate with 5 consulting engineers, various excavators, and a tree crew to conduct drain work. This situation allows us to “ramp-up” during busy times, and “trim down” when necessary.
- County jail prisoners are not well suited for drain work considering much of the effort involves chainsaws and an understanding of soil erosion control. Additionally, supervision is no longer provided with a crew.
Since 2013 activity in the Drain Office has accelerated considerably, in order to modernize the office, to meet new storm water permit standards, and because there is more demand to address long standing drainage problems due to a lack of systematic maintenance that considered the natural function of sub-watersheds. Key projects in the last few years include:
- Advancement of the Kuis and Pierson Swamp Drain projects from petition, to design, to permitting. Both projects started before I took office.
- Surface water control structures installed on the Mona Lake Celery Flats (Scott and Water’s Drain) to prevent phosphorus loading in Mona Lake.
- Citizen initiated petitions for work on 7 different drains. Note: each project is an involved process that generally takes 12-18 months, depending on the complexity of the project.
- Two County Road Commission initiated petitions for drain work.
- Work with remediation of the Marathon (Old Dutch Refinery) site in Muskegon Township by relocating a county drain to avoid the transport of groundwater contamination.
- Complete cleaning and restoration of the McSorely branch of the Black Creek Consolidated Drain.
- Design and work bid for the Dirkes branches of the Black Creek Consolidated Drain.
- Assessment and corrections made to the Wolf Lake pump system for lake level control.
- Tree cutting crew bids and maintenance via selective trimming on 15 drains.
- Creation of storm water management standards written to comply with upcoming MI Department of Environmental Quality storm water permits. The standards were developed with Ottawa & Allegan Counties. Previously Muskegon County had no documented standards.
- Storm water permit assistance to the cities of Norton Shores, Muskegon, Muskegon Heights and Roosevelt Park in coordination with the Muskegon Conservation District and the Lake Macatawa Council.
- Being a partner in the Bear Lake Celery flats restoration (Wells Drain).
- Updated county-wide computerized drain map from early 1900s vintage drain descriptions.
- Individual computerized (GIS) maps for 95 drainage districts (of 129) based on historic maps.
- Recertification of 37 drain district boundaries based on modern surveys and sub-watershed boundaries.
- Completion of 90% of computerized maps for 433 development agreements, a form of county drain within developments.
- Site plan review assistance for local units for storm water management plans.
- Coordination with the Michigan Department of Transportation for regional detention near Apple Avenue; financed by the state.
- Three inter-county drain board actions to facilitate projects with Kent, Ottawa, Oceana, and Newaygo counties.
- Partnering with the Muskegon County Conservation District for drain restoration assistance, grants, and herbicide spraying.
- Emergency repairs in Muskegon Township for private property protection on the Round Marsh Drain.
- Montague Township backflow structure placed in conjunction with a developer to prevent flooding in a subdivision along the Stewart Drain.
- Attempted coordination with Farm Bureau regarding stream and drain buffers.
- Value added assistance not related to the Drain Code, but provided by the Drain Commissioner:
- Zoning materials and training to local units of government;
- Rewrote the county’s Recreation Plan to facilitate grant submittals;
- Currently working on Bear Lake Plan for the newly formed Bear Lake Board.
- Numerous public training sessions and participation in youth activities with respect to surface water quality management.
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 storm water permit requirements (administered by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality);
- Site plan review as it pertains to storm water management;
- Water pollution abatement by reducing illicit discharges into county drains.
Protecting Water Quality
Unmitigated storm water 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 storm water discharges, uphold certain standards for their management. The County, through the Offices of the Drain Commissioner and the Road Commission, holds NPDES storm water 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 storm water Committee (MAMSWC). The Drain Commissioner is a member of that group.
Unmanaged storm water 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 farm 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 storm water 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.
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