Keep off, for now

Extra dirt from drain project beefs up Ranney Park sledding hill

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MONDAY, Jan. 11 — The biggest “whee” temptation in Lansing is the volcano-like cone thrusting into the sky at the north end of East Lansing’s Ranney Park, next to the Frandor Shopping Center.

Despite the warning fence at the bottom of the hill, and grumbling earthmovers churning the foothills into mud by day, the lure of gravity is irresistible. Hundreds of tracks crisscross the snow.

But the bulldozers aren’t there to catch you.

Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann is urging people to stay off the hill and stay out of the park, hoping that the prospect of a sledding hill nearly twice as high next winter, with safety features and better access, will make it worth the wait.

A fast and bulbous new hill is only the cherry on top of a mammoth infrastructure parfait that’s taken more than 20 years to get this close to completion — the $34.8 million Montgomery Drain project, the most significant and extensive overhaul of storm water drains in Ingham County history.

Steam shovels have already scooped tons of earth from the park. A new, man-made landscape of hills, ponds and connecting trails is clearly visible south of the sledding hill, under a crust of snow and ice. The system will filter tons of pollutants from storm water that drains into the Red Cedar River, while turning the park into a hilly oasis of walkways, benches and cascades of trickling water.

“There are millions of cubic yards of earth we’d have to pay to haul away,” Lindemann said. “Instead of dumping it miles away, we’re dumping it right there.”

The extra height will increase the hill’s scream appeal, but the hill will also be safer, with a “runaway truck lane” to safely decelerate sledders.

But the project isn’t finished and heavy equipment is still in the way.

“With this new snow, people want to sneak onto the site and use it,” Lindemann said. “I sympathize with them. I’d like to go down there and slide down the hill myself, but it’s just not safe. We’re not finished cutting into the earth and piling up the earth.”

Lindemann also wants to protect the work that’s already been done. Fresh mats of straw and grass seed are in place across much of the park..

“People are messing those up,” Lindemann said. “We’re hoping they would germinate right away this spring.”

After more over 20 years of planning, design work and delays — most recently tied to the on-and-off-and-on Red Cedar development south of the park — the Montgomery Drain project is changing the landscape.

The ambitious natural drain system will tackle the most polluting square mile in the county, according to Lindemann, to meet Phase II federal requirements set by the Clean Water Act.

The drain’s service area is an 80-percent impervious, or pavement-encrusted, square mile, including Frandor and its satellite strip malls, Grand River Avenue and Saginaw Street, I-127 and parts of Lake Lansing Road.

Currently, storm water falls on these hard surfaces and flushes straight into the Red Cedar River within minutes, carrying 50,000 to 75,000 pounds of pollution a year.

Tests have shown 80 different pollutants in the Red Cedar River, from arsenic and petroleum, rubber from car tires, asbestos from roof shingles, acids and other inorganic and organic debris.

Lindemann considered building a storm water treatment plant, similar to a sewage treatment plant, to deal with the problem, but he said the plant would cost $80 million to $90 million to build and cost millions to run.

The natural system of retention ponds, cascades and filters going into place at Ranney Park and further south, next to the Red Cedar development, will trap an estimated 95 percent of those pollutants, Lindemann said. The filters will either neutralize the toxins or trap them, so they can be hauled off to a landfill.

In severe floods, the drain will even handle dirty water from other counties as it churns downstream.

The Montgomery Drain is just one of 236 discharges from county storm drains that go into the Red Cedar, but it’s by far the “worst,” Lindemann said.

It’s not just a matter of filtering the water. Slowing it down as it makes its way from the drainage area to the river is key, he said.

While doing some early research on the watershed, Lindemann released a vial of harmless dye into a drain in the Frandor parking lot, got into his car and made the five-minute drive to the river a few blocks away, only to find the dye already in the river.

“If you look at the economic damage, and the damage to public health that happens in these flooding events — that’s because over the years, we have increased the speed at which the water comes off the land and goes into the river,” he said.

Lindemann’s low impact drain features are usually designed to fight gravity. The sledding hill project is a rare exception.

“I hope people can be patient, because they are really going to enjoy this when it’s done,” Lindemann said. The hill is scheduled for reopening by next winter, but the plan is to make it an all-season attraction.

“You can slide down that hill on a piece of cardboard in summer,” Lindemann said.

South of the hill, the “punch list” of uncompleted work in the rest of Ranney Park is getting shorter. Benches, electrical cables for lampposts and other finishes are scheduled for completion in early spring.

It’s a different story north of the park, where major drain work has not yet begun, and will likely snarl traffic on Saginaw and Grand River in summer 2021. Lindemann hopes that part of the job will be done before MSU football re-launches in the fall. The entire drain system is scheduled to be in full flow by 2022.

Tied to the Montgomery Drain project is a major overhaul of the Red Cedar riverbed itself, from Harrison Road to Kalamazoo Street, funded by a $500,000 grant from the state of Natural Resources Department, scheduled to get underway in June. A stretch of river directly south of Frandor and the Red Cedar development will be narrowed, cleaned up and re-carved as a spawning bed for steelhead, lake and rainbow trout.

“Over the years, we’ve blown the banks out, widened the river and ruined the natural state of that river,” LIndemann said. “We have to physically correct our mistakes, starting with the Montgomery Drain. I will continue to look at ways to modify landscaping upstream, on the land, that reduce the rate of flow, to restore some equilibrium that we can live with, and the fish can live with.”

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