Review finds dam safety in Michigan 'lacking for decades,' recommends overhaul

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Michigan spending on dam safety has been "lacking for decades" with a program that's "extremely understaffed" and constrained by limited money, according to a national review released Thursday.  

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials presented its findings Thursday from a peer review of Michigan's dam Safety Unit, concluding that the funding and staffing shortfalls increase the risk to public safety and the environment. Owners of high hazard dams should perform detailed engineering assessments to root out defects in aging structures, the association said. 

In this Wednesday, May 20, 2020, photo, people survey the flood damage to the Curtis Road Bridge in Edenville, Mich., over the Tittabawassee River. The bridge sits just south of Wixom Lake where the dams failed.

The report noted that Michigan hasn't had rigorous enforcement of dam safety violations for years.

"Michigan has not invested in safety of its dams for many decades, and the needs have accumulated as the dams have aged," the 267-page September report notes. "Unsafe dams pose a risk to the environment and ecology of Michigan as well as endanger public safety."

In 2016, the Snyder administration released the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report that estimated that Michigan needed $227 million in state funding over 20 years to support maintenance and removal of dams.

The state's Dam Safety Task Force is expected to analyze the limited scope review conducted by a team of engineers and dam safety professions as well as 19 accompanying recommendations as part of a review to help Michigan regulators and lawmakers prioritize fixes, state environmental regulators said Thursday. 

“The ASDSO report acknowledges the decades of underinvestment in infrastructure in Michigan, which includes many dams that, if they failed, would put downstream residents’ lives in jeopardy,” Liesl Clark, director of the state department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, said in a Thursday statement. 

“We, along with the Task Force members, will take a close look at the many thoughtful recommendations in the report and welcome working collaboratively with the Legislature and other stakeholders to strengthen Michigan’s Dam Safety Program while also holding owners accountable for safely operating their dams.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had ordered the review along with a forensic investigation following the May failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams in mid-Michigan after days of heavy rainfall. 

The flooding, state officials said, displaced nearly 11,000 people and damaged roughly 2,500 structures.

EGLE requested that a peer review team from the association of dam officials evaluate the state's Dam Safety Program objectives and policies and compare them against other accepted practices for dam safety engineering and management. 

The team found that while Dam Safety Program staff “are dedicated, well-educated, experienced engineers that are doing the best they can,” the program ideally should have 11 staff, including three senior dam safety engineers and three junior safety engineers to oversee the approximately 1,060 state-regulated dams.

Michigan’s program has two dam safety engineers and one supervisor. A third dam safety engineer is expected to be hired soon. 

In the 2021 fiscal budget signed Wednesday by Whitmer, the state has funding to hire two more dam safety engineers, which would bring the total to five. 

The review team recommended a requirement that owners of aging high hazard dams perform periodic detailed evaluations of their facilities. 

Right now, high hazard dams are inspected every three years and significant hazard dams every four years, the report said.

Accepted standards, however, recommend that high hazard dams be inspected annually and that biennial inspections be conducted for significant hazard dams.

The state's Dam Safety Program, it adds, does not have an inspection checklist or standard report form to assist dam owners in providing consistent inspection documentation.

There also "are no written policies and procedures for dealing specifically with dam incidents or failures," the review found.

The report recommends legislative changes, since the Dam Safety Program lacks authority to require dam owners to obtain a permit to operate and maintain dams in a safe condition, nor to report annually on maintenance, operation and engineering investigations. Requirements for owners to maintain records, including proof of financial responsibility, also are lacking. 

The review team called for collaboration between the state, association and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to simplify the transfer of information when states take over regulation of a former hydroelectric dam.

The federal commission found the Edenville Dam to be unsafe and revoked its energy license in September 2018 from the dam's owner, Boyce Hydro Power LLC. The state had to file Freedom of Information Act requests with the federal commission to obtain documents and reports about the dam.

Currently, 92 hydroelectric dams are regulated by the federal commission, according to the report, adding the statutes of Michigan "do not create duplicative regulatory authority regarding hydropower dams."

The report suggested Michigan offer a revolving loan program to provide grants and low-interest loans to public owners of high hazard dams in need of rehabilitation. 

“National experience has demonstrated that a state organized and funded program for grants and low interest loans is critical to achieving real progress in rehabilitating publicly owned dams,” the report notes.

The report cites the 2018 American Society of Civil Engineers report card that gave Michigan a grade of C- and said the state "must make more progress to address dams in need of repair or removal."