‘Uncharted territory’: Tracking high water on Grand River

PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — From the big lake to inland waterways, rising waters have become a chronic problem, and it could get worse come spring. That’s especially true on local rivers.

Many roads leading into neighborhoods along the Grand River in Comstock Park are flooded.

Bruce Ling has lived along the river for the past 27 years. He helps the National Weather Service by reading flood gauges and checking flood gates.

“It was at 13.8 (feet). I just did a reading for the National Weather Service and NOAA, and it’s at 13.45,” Ling listed his Friday morning readings. “This last year, we’ve had a number of high water events, not anything like we have right now. But the server’s been up more than it has been in the past.”

While residents say flooding is normal for this time of year, hydrologists say the cause this year is different.

“Usually, it has to do with ice and ice jams making problems in the river, but you’ll notice we’re not talking about that this year. That’s because there’s no ice in the river right now,” Andy Dixon, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, said.

Like Lake Michigan, water levels on area rivers are staggering.

The Weather Service has charted over 100 years of water levels along the Grand. Dixon showed News 8 an a chart showing water volume averages at Grand Rapids for the century. On it, a black line represents the ebb and flow of average volumes along a 12-month period. A much shorter red line raises sharply on the chart, showing volumes since Oct. 1, 2019.

“Probably … we will have sent a year’s worth of water down the Grand River in the first five months of this year. That’s pretty amazing.” Dixon said. “All that water, where does it go? It goes into the ground and into the rivers or directly runs off into the rivers and then Lake Michigan.”

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While the water hasn’t inundated any homes along the Grand yet, it’s still creating dangerous situations.

On Thursday night, Kent County sheriff’s deputies had to bring in an armored vehicle capable of maneuvering through high water to get a patient in need of medical attention after flooding stopped an ambulance from going into a neighborhood along the Grand.

On Friday, the sheriff’s department launched its drone to survey the area.

“Right now, it’s a lot of impassable roads, which is really the public safety concern,” Kent County Emergency Management Director Lt. Lou Hunt said.

Spring, the time when flooding risks are most severe, is still months away. Emergency management officials are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Many of the same factors that have brought lake levels to records levels are affecting area rivers like the Grand.

“We’re in uncharted territory. We have never sent this much water down the Grand River in this period of time,” Dixon said. “We haven’t so much had specifically heavy rain events as we’ve had a consistent drumbeat of wetter-than-normal month, wetter-than-normal month, wetter-than-normal month.”

That water has come in the form of a lot of rain, but not much snow. That could help alleviate some of the problems because melting snow in the spring adds even more water to the rivers.

But it’s only January and that could change. Dixon said residents along the river could be in for a difficult spring.

“We’re kind of accumulating risk factors,” he said. “So odds are we have a better-than-normal chance of having flooding this spring, is what it adds up to.