Report: Aging Michigan dams suffer from lack of investment, face 'grave situation'

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Many dams in Michigan are facing a “grave situation” if significant investments are not made soon, a dam safety task force said in a report released this week.

To reduce the risk of dam failures, the Michigan Dam Safety Task Force Report recommends:

• Requiring dam owners to obtain licenses

• Requiring dam owners to set aside enough funds to maintain their dams and ultimately remove them

• Having an independent team conduct regular reviews of high-hazard dams

• Developing a revolving loan and grant program for dams

“Aging dams, just like all infrastructure throughout Michigan, suffer from a lack of consistent investment, which must be addressed if we want to avoid future tragedies,” Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and a Task Force member said in a statement this week.

“EGLE is moving forward with changes we can make — such as hiring three dam safety engineers — and is eager to partner with other stakeholders to prioritize and implement these important recommendations in a timely manner.”

According to the 19-member task force, the investments need to include $20 million for the revolving fund program, $750,000 for grants for scoping and design funding dam rehabilitation and removal, and $5 million for a dam safety emergency fund.

It also recommends $1.9 million annually for staffing at the equivalent of 12.65 full time employees.

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

The 56-page report comes nearly a year after two dams failed in May 2020 causing flooding in Gladwin and Midland counties.

The dam failures prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to order a review of the condition of dams in Michigan. She also called to assess the state’s ability to oversee more than 2,500 structures that are not regulated by the federal government, with 1,100 of those regulated by the state.

The failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams in mid-Michigan came after days of heavy rainfall. The flooding displaced nearly 11,000 people and damaged about 2,500 structures, according to state officials.

Debris backs up along the Sanford Dam near the Village of Sanford, Michigan. The Edenville dam failed on May 19, 2020, sending the contents of Wixom lake downriver into the Sanford dam, causing it also to fail.

More than 80 percent of dams in Michigan are older than the nominal 50-year design life, the report noted. Spillway capacity is also often below projected storm flows, which can result in dam failure.

"Months of research and input from the public and from outside experts have contributed to a plan that we are confident will improve dam safety in the state," said Evan N. Pratt, chair of the dam safety task force and Water Resources Commissioner for Washtenaw County.

The report complements three other state-initiated, internal and external reviews, Pratt said. 

That includes a report released in October by the the Association of State Dam Safety Officials that concluded that dam safety was "lacking for decades" and that funding and staffing shortfalls increase the risk to public safety and the environment.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN