Drain commissioner won’t resign after river fiasco

A portion of the Coldwater River where crews have been working. (April 21, 2015)

HASTINGS, Mich. (WOOD) — After allegedly approving work he shouldn’t have, the Barry County Drain Commissioner may have opened himself and the intercounty drain board up to lawsuits — but he said Wednesday that he will not resign.

Last year, the Little Thornapple River Intercounty Drain Board approved some limited tree and debris removal along nearly 14 miles of the Coldwater River — more formally named the Little Thornapple River — in Barry County. But it appears that many more trees than ordered may have been removed, part of the river was dredged and some of the river’s banks are now bare earth — giving rise to concerns about erosion.  The work was supposed to stop in December, and only continue with approval form the whole board. A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Agriculture told 24 Hour News 8 it appears Barry County Drain Commissioner Russ Yarger approved additional work on his own.

Wednesday, 24 Hour News 8 found Yarger at a public meeting of the Intercounty Drain Commission. When asked if he approved work without the approval of the rest of the board, Yarger replied, “Not in my opinion.”

He wouldn’t elaborate on his opinion of what did happen.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has put a stop to the work along the river, issued violations and opened an investigation.

People who live along it say it looks like a war zone and they have questioned they want answered: What happened? Who’s going to pay to fix it?

A sign directing people to the April 29, 2015 meeting of the Intercounty Drain Commission.
(A sign directing people to the April 29, 2015 meeting of the Intercounty Drain Commission.)

“We paid to tear it up and now we’re paying to put it back together,” said one man who spoke at a Wednesday morning meeting of the Intercounty Drain Commission.

The board said that there are some options about who will pay for the river restoration, but there is a possibility that taxpayers will have to foot the bill.

24 Hour News 8 asked Yarger what he had to say to people who are upset that they may have to pay for the river restoration.

“We’ll have to see how it works out,” he said. “We’re going to have a lot of volunteers, a lot of stuff donated to us. There’s money left on the contract. There may not be any extra [cost to restore the river.]”

The intercounty board hired a consultant agency on Wednesday to help with the restoration project. Aaron Snell with Streamside Ecological Services said his first concern is the stabilization of the river banks.

“The longer term picture will be restoring the river into the state it was once in,” Snell said.

24 Hour News 8 asked Yarger if he thinks he did anything wrong throughout this process.

“It depends. Things are different in everybody’s eyes,” Yarger replied.

No one knows how much it will cost to restore the river or how long it will take.

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