ESCANABA - Local officials and residents are running out of time to voice their opinions on the proposed relocation of a portion of County Road 497, which is being threatened by the Sturgeon River.
Many local units of government are against the cost of moving the road, which was built in 2008 using $1.5 million of federal funds. However, because the Sturgeon River is registered as a Wild and Scenic River, federal law limits the options for saving the road.
"What we're in the process of doing is the Delta Conservation District, the County of Delta, and the Delta County Road Commission are all responding to the last public comment period that they're going to have," said Rory Mattson, executive director of the Delta Conservation District and member of the Delta County Road Commission. "We're responding together on one letter but separately, as it will say in the letter, to make sure we aren't lost in the processes to move forward."
The public comment period will end Saturday. A final decision on what actions the USDA Forest Service will take is expected early next year.
"I hope to make a decision in early January," Hiawatha National Forest District Ranger David Silvieus told the Daily Press.
The U.S. Forest Service is favoring a plan to relocate approximately 2,700 feet of County Road 497 to an existing railroad and utility corridor. The move would cost between $450,000 and $500,000.
The corridor, which is located roughly 120 feet west of the road, is currently being used as a snowmobile and RV trail. "They'd have to move that, and nobody is even talking about that," said Mattson.
The environmental assessment for the plan analyzes three alternatives to moving the road. While all the alternative plans would protect the road, the plans are under scrutiny due to the strict regulations on Wild and Scenic Rivers.
One proposed alternative to the immediate road relocation would be to create a temporary gravel road west of the eroding site. Fascines - bundles of wood material - and trees with root wads intact would be used to form a barrier along the bank near the existing road to slow the encroaching river.
It is expected that the river would continue to encroach until the gravel road became the only safe traffic route. At that point the county would need to relocate the road.
A third considered option would be to move the road to a location between the proposed corridor site and the existing County Road 497.
Other proposals that did not require the road being moved but required in-stream equipment operation and disturbance of the river were favored by local officials. However, the plans were not thoroughly analyzed in the environmental assessment.
Because the Sturgeon River is an active river system, the encroaching oxbow - or U-shaped bend in the river - is not the only change taking place.
A new channel, called a "chute cutoff," is forming between two oxbows to the east of the road. Once this chute cutoff is formed, water will not pass through the portion of the river that threatens the road.
One proposed alternative rejected by the Forest Service was to remove an estimated 5,500 cubic yards of material along the path the chute cutoff is predicted to take.
"It's to speed up Mother Nature ... to enhance an alternative flow in the oxbow," said Mattson.
Cutting a channel along the predicted path of the chute cutoff would save the road and cost less than a road relocation. The Forest Service does not plan to pursue the option, because altering the free-flowing nature of the river would be in violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and Forest Plan.
A second proposal not studied in detail during the environmental assessment was to use riprap - barriers formed from sand, filter material, and rock - to protect the shoreline. The Forestry Service believes that this could also violate the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act because the rocks are not naturally found in that area.
"Rock is natural," said Mattson. "There have been places in scenic rivers where riprap was used."
Regardless of the plan implemented, Mattson assures that if the road were undercut while still in use the Road Commission would act to keep motorists safe.
"If that road would go we'd go out and fix it immediately," he said.