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Dry lakebeds pose risks to adventurers in Midland area

Ashley Schafer
Midland Daily News
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Midland – With more snow inevitably on its way this winter, county officials are warning residents about the dangers that the now-dry lakebeds pose, especially to those who partake in winter recreations such as snowmobiling.

Sandy, eroded cliffs; steep drop-offs to the water; firm, unforgiving stumps; piles of driftwood, and spear-like trees await residents who risk venturing out onto Sanford or Wixom lake this winter. Or rather, what was Sanford and Wixom Lake.

In May, the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams led to the drainage of Sanford and Wixom Lake. While a smaller river continues to run through the lakebeds, new, hazardous features have been uncovered.

In this May 21, 2020, file photo, Wixom Lake is drained of water after the Edenville Dam failed and flood waters rushed south, ravaging the landscape in its path, in Edenville Township, Mich.

“Winter changes everything, if it’s snowing and you can’t see very far,” Gladwin County Emergency Director Robert North told the Midland Daily News.

North said they want residents to be aware of the hazards and avoid putting themselves in dangerous situations. And, not only are there hazards present, but the response time to an emergency on the lakes is limited due to the geographical setup of the lakes.

Response times will vary greatly, even if everything goes perfectly. An ambulance can only get so close to the lake.

“Time and space considerations for rescue response are incredible; they’ve expanded exponentially other than what they would have been if we had a normal lake,” North said. “It puts people further at risk.”

North provided an example scenario: Say a homeowner sees a person in peril out in the middle of the riverbed. If they call it in and emergency crews respond to the house and see that the person in need of help is on the other side of the river, it could take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to shift gears and get to the other side.

In addition, with many ditches and low visibility over the rugged topography, a person could fall or get hurt and never be seen.

To prepare for these emergency scenarios, regional county officials, departments and emergency response teams with Homeland Security ran a couple drills about a month ago.

The Four Lakes Task Force also has warned residents about the public safety issue. They issued the following information.

This winter, the Michigan Department of Transportation will install a temporary bridge over Wixom Lake and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy will modify the Tobacco River side of the Edenville Dam to make it safer.

These two construction projects make the Tobacco River arm of Wixom Lake unusually dangerous this winter.

The public is advised to avoid the following areas:

Near the MDOT and EGLE projects

  • Avoid driving those parts of M-30 south of Strykers Marina or north of Edenville unless you live in or have work in the area. These areas will have construction traffic for both projects and the workers do not need interference from sightseers.
  • Stay away from the lake and river shore areas near both projects, whether in a snowmobile, boat or any other vehicle or on foot. That means no sightseeing, no fishing, no hunting. Stay away for your safety and the safety of the workers.
  • Stay off the embankments of the dam and the lake bottom land within 500 feet of the construction work.

The rest of the Tobacco River arm of Wixom Lake

  • During the construction projects, we advise people to stay off the water now and to stay off the ice after freeze-up. That means no boating, no snowmobiling, no fishing and no ice shanties.
  • EGLE will partially demolish the 95-year-old concrete spillway structure, in order to perform a controlled release of water and lower the water level on the Tobacco arm of Wixom Lake by 10 to 15 feet. Due to the current water levels and the planned lowering, there is increased risk of falling through the ice or getting stranded on drifting ice.

EGLE and FLTF expect the work will be designed and performed with an emphasis on safety and the water will be released in a safe, controlled manner. However, during demolition, a large flood event or an unexpected failure of the 95-year-old dam structure could result in an uncontrolled release of water from the river. If such an uncontrolled release should occur, it could be a fatal mistake to be on the water or ice when that release happens.

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