Task force's acquisition of mid-Michigan dams halted after flood

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

A two-county authority on Tuesday halted the planned purchase of century-old dams it had hoped to improve in mid-Michigan after two failed last week, causing devastating flooding in Midland County.

The Four Lakes Task Force had agreed to buy Boyce Hydro's four dams on the Titabawassee River — Edenville, Sanford, Smallwood and Secord — when the Edenville and Sanford dams failed during historic rains last week.

The task force had secured at least $5 million in state grants for repairs and was working to set up a special assessment for the anticipated two-year ownership transition and $100 million in planned upgrades that were in the planning stages. 

"The acquisition has not and will not take place under the terms that were negotiated with Boyce Hydro this past winter," Four Lakes Task Force said in a Tuesday statement. "We are reassessing the path forward to acquire the Boyce property and rebuild our dams and lakes."

This drone photo shows the Sanford Dam, the right side of which has been breached by floodwaters, in May of 2020.

The task force also said it would not move forward with special assessments that were to be levied to fund its operations, but will seek other sources of public and private funding, the task force said.

The halted sale and funding plan calls into question the future of the four dams and the lakes they created, as well as hopes for repairs that would ensure their safety.

Federal officials found the Edenville Dam to be unsafe and revoked its energy license in 2018; state officials found it did not meet less stringent state standards in January, according to emails reviewed by The Detroit News.

An attorney for Boyce Hydro could not be reached Tuesday and messages left for the company were not immediately returned. 

The Four Lakes Task Force is an authority created by Midland and Gladwin counties to administer and oversee the maintenance and operations of the four dams and lakes. It announced on Jan. 2 a $9.4 million purchase agreement on behalf of Midland and Gladwin counties, according to Stacey Trapani, a spokeswoman for the task force.

The failures came after years of federal concern over the Edenville Dam's inadequate spillway capacity, among other deficiencies, that eventually led to the revocation of the dam's power license. Oversight then transferred to the state.

The four dams on the Tittabawassee River create Wixom, Sanford, Secord and Smallwood lakes.

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Boyce Hydro was to continue operating the dams through January 2022 under the plans with the task force.

The Four Lakes Task Force is now "collaborating with the counties, lake communities and regulatory authorities on the best path forward as we assess the issues and work toward recovery."

"While we do not have all the answers, we are committed to keep you informed and will share more details in the coming weeks, as we have them," the task force statement adds. "We know this is a personal and economic hardship on everyone, and we will not be pursuing funding that would result in an assessment at this time."

Larry Woodard, president of the Wixom Lake Association, told The Detroit News that he's "glad to see that there's people thinking about what we're going to do."

"The plan was in place, everything was moving ahead, we were securing loans and the money to do things here, and it's all kind of washed away now," said Woodard, 68, who has had a property in a canal just off Wixom Lake for about two decades. 

Woodard lives on the lake about seven months out of the year and said his house and pole barn there flooded within minutes of the dam failure. His house is drying prior to repair assessments being made, he said. Woodard had a restoration crew in late last week.

"It's devastating up here," said Woodard, president of the approximately 2,000-member association for seven years.

But with the teams in place working on solutions, he remains hopeful about the future, he said. 

"It's going to take time, but we're going to get through this," he said. 

The Boyce and task force agreement called for either of the entities to perform necessary repairs and upgrades to all of the dams by the end of 2023.

Mark Bone, chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners, said the dams are important to the county's economy and the lives of those who live on the lakes. 

"I don't have a solid answer to where we go from here, but I do know that we want to be part of the solution and do whatever we can to help," he said. "Everybody is concerned about the dams and what Midland looks like going forward."

Bone said the county board signed off on numerous documents as the deal progressed and had been supportive of the acquisition plan. 

"Right now, everybody is still in the clean-up mode and not 'where do we go in the future,'" he added. "I'm already thinking about the future. The main objective is we'll be looking for a solution."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer plans to visit Midland on Wednesday and provide an update on the state's plan to help with recovery efforts stemming from the dam failures. She noted during a news briefing Tuesday that she's met with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Federal Energy Regulation Commission on work that's being done jointly.

"We plan to do our due diligence and ensure that we have a full vetting of all the information and that we've got a plan going forward," she said.

In 2019, Midland County Circuit Judge Stephen Carras issued an order supporting the establishment of the Special Assessment District, a geographic boundary of waterfront properties along or near the four lakes to share financial responsibility to acquire, repair, improve, operate and maintain the dams. 

The assessment district funds were expected to finance a bond to help cover long-term operations related to controlling water levels in the lakes and costs of meeting state dam safety standards. The first assessment — which was estimated at $350 for each residential property owner with less than 300 feet of frontage and $88 for backlot parcels — was to appear on winter tax bills in 2021 and last about 20 years, according to the task force. 

The task force said Tuesday it understands the flooding has created personal and economic hardships, and that at this time, it will not pursue funding that would result in the special assessment districts for the lake communities.

The task force noted it would seek other sources of public and private funding.

“Four Lakes Task Force, as the delegated authority of the counties, is dedicated to returning these lakes to a recreational and natural resource gem of the region,” said Dave Kepler, president of the Four Lakes Task Force, in a statement. “We will do this with a continued focus on public safety.”