Caitlyn Bodine works in Kalamazoo. When she moved into her office on Howard Street a few years ago, she noticed that the sidewalk around the corner on Crosstown Parkway was closed.
“And I just thought at the time that maybe the sidewalk was under construction, something must be going on. But now it’s been three years and the signs are still here!” she said.
The sidewalk looks the same as it did three years ago, which is to say, unremarkable. It’s not under construction and it looks like it’s in decent shape. On her detours around the sidewalk, Caitlyn’s had time to wonder what the problem is.
"Is it because it’s slippery? Is it because there’s some underground substance that is harmful? Are there secret things happening in buildings around us?”
The short answer is that this sidewalk can pose a risk, but not all the time, and not always when you’d expect.
“It is an odd situation,” said Jean Talanda, who manages environmental programs for the city’s public services department.
“But this is a situation we can’t control because it’s due to nature. It’s nature’s forces and they are much larger than human forces, let’s just put it that way.”
Talanda’s going to explain those forces. As we stand on the forbidden sidewalk on Crosstown Parkway, Talanda points out to Caitlyn and me that the land around us rises in three directions. Basically every way but north.
“The groundwater, then, from three sides coming to this valley, and the only escape it has is to the north where it’s lower,” she said.
That means there’s plenty of water under our feet. It’s wet enough around here that new water doesn’t always have a place to go. Caitlyn’s seen the street flood during heavy rain. In what Talanda calls a sure sign that you’re in a valley, a creek - Axtell Creek in this case - runs along the other side of Crosstown. We peer through the growth on the restored banks at a family of puttering ducks.
Talanda wants to show us another place a block or so down the road. We walk through a big wooden gate into a forested wetland, as Talanda describes it. Kalamazoo gets all its drinking water from the ground, and this is a backup wellfield. The vibe is half nature, half engineering, with green wellheads poking up among the trees.
“You notice you don’t hear any pumps. The wellfield is off, and it’s been off for a bit. I think the last time they used it was last week for a couple of days,” she said.
Even though it’s not running, water pours out of a crevice near a wellhead. Talanda says some of the water probably comes from the well. But she also suspects that this is a natural artesian seep. In other words, a place where water is under so much pressure it’s forced out of the ground. But that’s not limited to the wellfield.
It was a seep that caused the city to close the sidewalk near Caitlyn Bodine’s office. As water moves through the hills, it sometimes wells up and over the concrete. Talanda says a heavy rain could set it off, but if you run out to watch the Crosstown seep the next time it pours, you might be disappointed.
“What’s in the ground that you can’t see, and what people don’t realize, is a massive storage container of groundwater. These beautiful sands and gravels that we have here hold a lot of groundwater,” she said.
And since groundwater moves slowly, it’s hard to say when the extra water will reach the sidewalk. Still, the seep is active enough that the city is concerned.
“It can produce mold because it’s wet so often so it can be very slippery. And definitely when it freezes, that is a slip, trip and fall kind of situation.”
And with a water system to run, Talanda says it would be touch for the city to open and close the sidewalk as the seep runs wet or dry. So it’s simply been closed. But Public Services Director James Baker says he realizes that can mystify people, and the city is planning a change. It’s going to open the sidewalk, but add signs explaining about the seep and the risk of slippery pavement. Baker says he expects those to go up before the end of next month.
As we wrap up our visit, Talanda hands us each a bag. Inside are pamphlets and a few goodies promoting groundwater protection. Caitlyn Bodine, who’s spent years threading her way around the closed sidewalk on Crosstown Parkway, pulls out a pencil.
“There’s even a little teardrop eraser,” she said. “Water drop - it’s not a teardrop. We are happy in Kalamazoo.”