Michigan needs to do — and spend — much more to avoid further disasters like the two dam failures that caused catastrophic flooding in Midland and Gladwin counties in May 2020, the Michigan Dam Safety Task Force states in its final report submitted this week to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The 19-member task force, including state department heads, engineers, dam safety officials and others, was convened by Whitmer following the Edenville and Sanford dam failures on the Tittabawassee River amid record rains last May. The dam failures drained the Wixom Lake and Sanford Lake impoundments, causing devastating flooding downriver in Midland, with more than $250 million in damages. Whitmer asked the task force to take a comprehensive look at the state’s 2,500 dams, about 1,100 of which are regulated by the state, and whether their regulation was adequate.
The task force’s report was crafted after 22 public meetings and numerous other, smaller workgroup sessions. Among its findings, the task force recommends the state of Michigan:
- More than quadruple its staffing for dam safety regulation from the three full-time employees, including two dam safety inspectors, it had when the Edenville and Sanford dams failed.
- Set a $25 million dam safety emergency fund over the next five years.
- Establish a 20-year, $400 million revolving loan fund to help dam owners fund much-needed maintenance on the state’s aging, crumbling, high-hazard dams.
“The state is heading toward a grave situation with many dams if significant investments are not made in the short and medium term,” the report stated.
But the task force’s recommendations — at those price tags — are going to be tough to accomplish, a retired, longtime Oakland County official said.
“(Policy makers) have got dozens of priorities; which ones do you deal with? Because you can’t deal with them all,” said Robert Daddow, who served as deputy county executive under L. Brooks Patterson in Oakland County for 28 years. Daddow resigned in August 2019 after Patterson’s death and as new county executive David Coulter took office.
“The dams will be competing with roads — which is a political hot-button for Whitmer — and local issues like water and sewer.”
Daddow, who was not part of Whitmer’s Dam Safety Task Force, was appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder in 2016 to a 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, which issued a reportto advise the governor on a vision forward for the state on a variety of infrastructure challenges, including dams. Many of the same problems identified in Whitmer’s task force’s report were also outlined five years ago.
“These decades-old dams have deteriorated due to age, erosion, poor maintenance, flood damage, or antiquated design; and they are particularly vulnerable during high water flow events,” Snyder’s commission’s report stated in 2016.
“Dams are not routinely assessed for social and economic value and operational risks, which hinders reaching informed decisions on reinvestment, repair, removal, or replacement. Adequate, consistent, and long-term funding sources are limited for dam removal.”
Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Director Liesl Clark, a member of the Dam Safety Task Force, voices similar concerns now.
“Aging dams, just like all infrastructure throughout Michigan, suffer from a lack of consistent investment, which must be addressed if we want to avoid future tragedies,” she said.
EGLE is in the process of hiring three additional dam safety engineers to join the current two who oversee Michigan’s 1,100 regulated dams statewide.
But those historic staffing levels just don’t work, Daddow said.
“The notion that you have two people to inspect these dams, when they need huge engineering studies to determine if they are going to fail, is ludicrous,” he said.
He also questioned EGLE’s regular practice of accepting safety inspection reports from contractors hired by dam owners, and then reviewing the paperwork.
“Why would somebody come clean on something they know is a problem?” Daddow said. “You can’t have a self-inspection program. You have to do it with resources.”
The revolving loan and grant program recommended by the task force would be helpful in allowing dam owners — often small subdivisions or families — to have funding sources to reduce risk, Daddow said. But, politically, it could be tough to establish, he said.
“What you’re doing is providing low-cost financing for a private entity,” he said.
Among the Dam Safety Task Force report’s 86 recommendations are to have the Legislature revise and adopt laws and rules clarifying the responsibilities of dam owners and the engineers they hire, to “ensure owner accountability.”
“(Update) agency policies for violation management to include clear timelines for actions to alleviate significant risks posed by high and significant hazard dams and (utilize) water-level lowering orders as a compliance tool to reduce the safety risks posed by long unmaintained, deteriorating dams and unresponsive dam owners,” the report states.
Dam owners should also be required to maintain adequate financial security for maintenance and ultimate removal of no longer necessary dams, the task force recommends. The owner of the failed Edenville and Sanford dams, Boyce Hydro Power LLC, for years refused to make necessary spillway improvements called for by federal regulators to handle major flood events. The company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy amid a myriad of lawsuit filings following the dam failures and flooding.
“The owner just said, ‘I don’t have the money; I’m not going to do it.’ And he filed for bankruptcy when it failed,” Daddow said. “You can’t let it get to that point or else you’re going to have more Midlands. You’ve got to have a shorter leash and a bigger stick once a problem has been identified to move onto action to correct it.”
Some of the task force’s recommendations will take more time than others to implement, EGLE spokesman Nick Assendelft said.
“EGLE has begun the process of making its Dam Safety Unit a standalone program — it’s currently housed in the Hydrologic Studies and Dam Safety Unit,” he said. “We’re also hiring more dam safety engineers to bring our program staff up to six: a supervisor and five dam safety engineers.”
Whitmer, in her proposed 2022 budget, calls for $15 million for the Dam Safety Emergency Fund for emergency response “when dam owners are unwilling or unable to mitigate hazards caused by dam malfunction,” Assendelft said.
“So, some of the recommendations are being acted on right away,” he said. “Other recommendations, however, will take longer to implement as they involve updating statutes or putting in place new rules or setting up funds. EGLE is eager to work with stakeholders to see that as many of these recommendations are acted upon as quickly as possible to improve the safety of dams across Michigan.”
This article appeared in the Detroit Free Press, for more, click here.