Did state pressure to keep Wixom Lake level high contribute to Edenville Dam's failure?

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The state denied on Thursday that it pressured the owner of the failed Edenville Dam to raise Wixom Lake water levels in April, while the company insisted that the push to keep water high contributed to the dam's collapse.

The state response comes after Boyce Hydro Power claimed in a statement issued Wednesday that Michigan officials wanted the water high to appease lakeshore residents.

A man walks toward the Edenville Dam at Wixom Lake in Beaverton after the levees broke.

Lee Mueller, a manager at Boyce Hydro, applied for a permit to raise lake levels in the spring and state regulators approved the permit April 9, said Ryan Jarvi, a spokesman for Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office. 

That approval came with “several conditions” because the company “was hesitant to promise that it wouldn’t just drop the level again in winter 2020, thus further damaging the state’s natural resources,” Jarvi said.

“It is not clear why Mr. Mueller thinks the state ‘pressured’ Boyce Hydro to raise the lake level in the spring of 2020." The state sued Boyce on April 29, claiming it illegally lowered lake levels and exposed aquatic life to harm.

MORE:Feds revoked license over fears dam could not survive major flood

MORE:Dangers of Edenville dam failure evaded state scrutiny

The lake level battle between the dam owner and state regulators dates back to late 2018 — when the state took jurisdiction over the dam from federal regulators — but was the subject of dueling lawsuits filed in late April and early May, a little more than two weeks before the dam burst.

State officials have said years of disinvestment in infrastructure combined with heavy rains and high winds were factors in the 96-year-old dam's failure. 

The dam owners have acknowledged years of regulatory concerns about the Edenville infrastructure that predated Tuesday's heavy rains and wave action that saturated an earthen dike at the east end of Edenville and washed out about 900 feet of the dam.

Mueller's statement also said he was pressured by the state to raise Wixom Lake levels weeks before the break. 

Mueller alleged in an April federal lawsuit that he made unauthorized drawdowns from Wixom Lake in the winters of 2018 and 2019 in part to avoid icy conditions that could endanger workers but also to protect folks downstream from what federal regulators deemed a real risk of a catastrophic flood from the dam. 

Nessel in a May state lawsuit said the illegal drawdowns were much larger than what was permitted by federal regulators and that they exposed thousands of freshwater mussels that later died. 

On Thursday, Jarvi said Mueller wasn’t drawing down water in the 2018 and 2019 winters to preserve the public safety of those downstream, but because he didn’t want to spend the money needed to keep his equipment maintained during the winter. 

EGLE denied his permit application to lower levels because the cost to keep up the equipment didn’t outweigh environmental and natural resources concerns, Jarvi said. Boyce made the drawdown anyway.

The company claimed in a lawsuit that it was following its previous federal regulators guidance to draw down the water to inspect the spillways. A September 2018 federal order approved a temporary drawdown for that purpose on the condition that Mueller would "refill the reservoir at the conclusion of spillway inspections."

“They were concerned about winter ice build-up, not a spring flood,” Jarvi said. “They wanted to lower the lake level during the winter months because they did not want to spend the money on the equipment, safety measures, and staff used by the other hydroelectric dams in Michigan — such as heated power washers, bubblers, on-call workers — to fight ice build-up.”

The company in a Thursday response said the revocation of Edenville's hydropower generation license in 2018 left the company with little funding to pay for improvements.

Opening the Edenville gates in 2018 and 2019 to allow for run-of-river levels — levels that kept Wixom Lake lower than usual — was a way to avoid dam failure in a flood without making expensive improvements, the company said.

"Had Boyce been allowed to maintain the Edenville dam at run of river levels it established immediately after losing its FERC license, the dam would have been able to handle and safely pass the volume of water generated by this storm," the company said in its statement.

"Sadly, Boyce was not allowed to do so, and in fact, was sued for doing so."

Jarvi called the claim "categorically false" and said the company — which "has a troubling track record for noncompliance and neglect" — was the one to ask for a permit in April to raise Wixom Lake levels back to normal levels. 

"After the destruction caused by Boyce’s failure to adequately maintain its dams, it is adding insult to injury by trying to shift blame to the state, local governments, and the very local residents who have now seen their lakefront property turned into mudflats and their community devastated by flooding," Jarvi said.

The state gained jurisdiction over Edenville Dam in late 2018 after the Federal Energy Regulatory Authority revoked the dam’s license for hydropower generation following 13 years of scolding over the dam’s inability to handle a major storm.

When the state took over jurisdiction, the dam fell under Michigan law, which has a lower benchmark for what type of a storm a dam should be prepared to handle.

Michigan requires dams to be able to handle 50% of the greatest possible storm likely in that area, also called the probable maximum flood.

The state, upon taking jurisdiction in 2018, conducted an initial investigation and found the dam to be in “fair structural condition.”

The state said it was in discussions with the company about its inadequate spillway capacity and expected a report in March from the company on ways to expand that flood capacity but the report was never completed.

A task force also was working to purchase Boyce Hydros dams — Edenville, Sanford, Smallwood and Secord — when the flood struck. The Four Lakes Task Force had gotten state grants for repairs and was working to set up a special assessment, but said its plans are now up in the air for the acquisition.