By Jessica Mathews /

A recent virtual event shed some light on the inner workings of the Livingston County Drain Commissioner’s Office.

The League of Women Voters of Livingston County and the Howell Carnegie District Library presented the event titled “Dams, Dirt, Drains and Rains”.
Drain Commissioner Brian Jonckheere said the title sums up a lot of things the department does. He said essentially, the Office deals with anything involving water including maintaining drains and watershed management to reduce impacts on water quality and lakes, rivers and streams that eventually feed into the Great Lakes.

The presentation included maps and various slides and answers to questions submitted by the public.

Jonckheere was elected in 1996. He grew up on a local family farm and has a background involving biology, fisheries, wildlife and environmental health. Jonckheere said the most satisfying part of the job is being able to help people and the department’s greatest asset is their staff – while among the most frustrating is that they can’t do anything with private drains, except perhaps give advice. He commented it’s not a traditional office in the sense that staff are usually out in the field than behind a desk.

The Office deals with environmental issues, lakes, storm water, drains and wastewater. It also administers a soil erosion and sedimentation control program and visits different sites regularly to make sure builders and developers minimize the amount of soil erosion going into drains, lakes and streams.

Jonckheere offered a history of Michigan and drains, which are based on watersheds, and discussed concerns with Lake Erie and massive algae blooms. He said long term to be really effective, laws are needed at the state level to give them authority to work proactively and they’re slowly getting there but in the Great Lakes state, a lot more could certainly be done to protect the waters of the state. Jonckheere commented about non-point source pollution and stuff people do on a daily basis that all adds up such as fertilizing lawns and mowing down to the water’s edge, which allows for more runoff and all contribute to larger impacts on bodies of water.

Jonckheere further highlighted stormwater and watershed management, lake levels and dams, aging and collapsing infrastructure and flood response. The Office handles lake improvement projects and is regularly petitioned for things such as dredging or weed control via harvesting of herbicide applications - which Jonckheere said they’re dealing with more and more because as the lakes age, they keep getting more shallow and they’re seeing a lot more invasive species causing problems.

Jonckheere highlighted drain projects and new techniques being employed to help prevent erosion, lakeshore stabilization, erosion problems, and reducing input into streams and ultimately lakes. Flood response is big, especially on the Huron River and Ore Lake in Hamburg Township. Jonckheere said there was another scare this past summer after a lot of rain and that continues to be a source of concern going into the future.

Jonckheere said the Huron River will always occupy the flood plain during periods of excessive rain and noted they’re seeing more intense storms and more development in the watershed. He cited problems with Ore Lake and noted the watershed extends into Oakland County to just south of Twelve Oaks Mall so any development being done there exacerbates the problem further downstream. Jonckheere said one of the few options people have to address flooding is to raise their home. He said they’re looking at better ways to protect homes than just sandbagging but as of right now, raising a home to prevent flooding is really one of the only trustworthy options people have.

With all of the rain being experienced – a level he hasn’t seen during his 25 years in office – Jonckheere said they’re getting a lot of petitions to establish new drains. He noted the amount of water people are dealing with as well as aging and collapsing infrastructure as a lot is clay tiles dating back to the turn of the century.

There were said to be a number of dams in the county that the Office monitors, although most are small and the majority are in satisfactory to fair condition. Jonckheere said the Office works closely with EGLE and has seen a lot of changes coming on, especially with dams and legislation that make it difficult for private operators to continue. He said it’s no secret the intent is to force private dam operators to either tear them out or transfer them to public ownership.

Also discussed were various waste diversion efforts and collection events for household hazardous waste, battery and tire collection events and compost bin sales. The Office also stocks northern pike in Thompson Lake in Howell.