Minor damage expected from partial breach of Hillsdale County dam

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

State environmental regulators say minimal damage is anticipated for a small Hillsdale County dam following a partial breach.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said late Saturday that partial breach of the Bear Lake Dam dropped water levels in Bear Lake several inches.

Officials from the Hillsdale County Drain Commission, which owns the structure, are "working on solutions to temporarily repair the leakage," an EGLE news release notes.

The Edenville Dam as it breached on Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

Hillsdale County Drain Commissioner Matt Word said Monday that he inspected the dam with a staff member on Saturday and put a plan together that they intend to implement today to slow down the flow of the water. 

The lake, he said, is down only about two and a half inches from Saturday. 

The breach was reported to the state around 8:30 p.m Saturday and water levels are expected to slowly decrease until they are around one foot below the normal summer lake level, then level out, EGLE spokesman High McDiarmid Jr. said in a Monday email.

EGLE noted that water is leaking around the structure, but  the dam is ranked as a low-hazard. 

The partial breach isn't the first for the dam, which has had issues with water flowing around the structure that were temporarily remedied with the installation of concrete bags.

A 2019 inspection report from a consultant hired by the owner rated the dam’s condition as "satisfactory" and recommended the bags be replaced with steel sheeting or a concrete wall.

That work, the state said, has not yet been performed. 

McDiarmid said there have been on fines or penalties. Prior to the partial breach, the dam was inspected on time and relatively stable, he said. 

Word said the concrete bags had been an inexpensive temporary fix, but the soil has continued to deteriorate and water is going underneath the bags. 

Drain officials will be meeting with an engineer later this week to discuss a more permanent solution. 

"We're starting the process to get it taken care of as soon as possible," he said. 

The small lake has a shallow shoreline and a mix of seasonal and permanent residences. 

Even if something were to give out, Word added, "we're not looking at a catastrophic failure."

EGLE reiterated that assessment, noting significant flooding is not anticipated and damage is expected to be limited to erosion around the breach site. 

The dam is less than 6 feet tall, and not regulated under a provision of the the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act that deals with structural and maintenance deficiencies. The dam, however, is regulated under a different section of the act that establishes a court-ordered legal lake level.

The partial breach follows a separate event in mid-Michigan in the spring that unfolded when a dam failed there, devastating some Midland communities and prompting state-level reforms. 

The Edenville Dam failed amid historic rains May 19, sending a surge of water downstream and over the top of the Sanford Dam, causing minor damage. The Smallwood and Secord dams also were damaged. 

The dam owners had been scolded by federal regulators for more than a decade. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked the dam's hydropower generation license in 2018. 

The state in July announced it would hire a third dam inspector for the 1,050 dams it regulates and form a task force to review dam safety operations.

EGLE, at the same time, has said it was awaiting results from two independent reviews of the state's dam safety operations.

Twin companies that own and operated the failed dams — Boyce Hydro LLC and Boyce Hydro Power LLC — filed for bankruptcy this month amid attempts by residents to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.