Legislature seeks $500M to fund dam repairs a year after Edenville failure

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The state Legislature plans to introduce new bills Thursday that would dedicate about $500 million in new funding toward dam repairs and emergency response, a year after the Edenville Dam failed amid historic rainfall and years of neglect. 

The plan dedicates funds for repairs to the failed Midland-area dams and five other identified high-risk dams. It also creates an emergency response fund and a fund that would provide state match dollars for federal money to rehabilitate or remove dams. 

The bills also will implement policy reforms recommended in the wake of the May 19, 2020 Edenville failure, such as requiring owners to keep better records of safety and maintenance efforts and proof of financial standing to handle potential issues with dams. Dams that present a significant safety risk would be inspected more frequently. 

“The people I talk to around here are concerned about something like this happening again and whether these old structures will ever really be fixed," said House Speaker Jason Wentworth, the Farwell Republican who represents some of the flooded areas in Gladwin County. 

"I get it — there’s been a lot of talk and too little action," Wentworth said in a statement. "With these bills, we are going to lock the state into a real plan big enough to actually fix the problem and fast enough to start delivering results in our most vulnerable areas before it’s too late.”

Water rushes through the Edenville Dam, Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Edenville.

Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland; Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland; Sen. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes; and Rep. Roger Hauck, R-Union Township, also helped develop the plan. Democratic lawmakers  contributed to the package.

“It was heartbreaking to see the devastation facing so many people, especially when almost all of it could have been prevented if improvements to the local dams had been made to ensure they could handle the water levels," said Stamas, who is chairman for the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Residents have been struggling to restore their communities after the May 2020 Edenville Dam breach, which sent water rushing over and around the Sanford Dam and flooded area residents. About 10,000 residents were evacuated ahead of the flood and most have not yet been made whole. 

Many residents did not have flood insurance to pay for damages to homes and businesses. 

Repairs to the damaged Midland-area dams — Secord, Smallwood, Edenville and Sanford — will cost residents about $215 million in assessments over 40 years. Some restoration work won't be complete until 2026. 

Four Lakes Task Force, a group created by Midland and Gladwin counties to manage the dams, hopes to offset the 40-year assessment with the help of about $150 million in state and federal grants. 

It's not yet clear how much of the proposed $500 million would go directly to repairs identified by the Four Lakes Task Force. 

About 25 lawsuits remain pending against state and federal regulators in relation to the May 2020 dam failure. 

Government documents revealed years of non-compliance with state and federal standards, a fumbled hand-off of oversight between the feds and state, and an underfunded dam safety effort ill-equipped to hold the dam owner to task.