Luke Trumble, a dam safety engineer with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), will be the first to tell you that while most dam failures in Michigan are small and inconsequential, there are a few each year – and about every 10 years Michigan has a large-scale failure.
Keeping in theme with the dumpster fire that is 2020, where every month seems to bring a new surprise of something awful, that 10-year mark, naturally, hit in May, and that dam failure was a doozy.
After days of historic rainfall and flooding, the Edenville Dam in Midland failed on May 19. Billions of gallons of water went downstream and triggered a second failure at the Sanford Dam. The 96-year-old Edenville Dam, owned by Boyce Hydro, had had plenty of problems leading up to the failure, including a poor condition rating from EGLE and having its license pulled to generate power by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2018.
What was left in its wake was around $200 million in damages and more than 10,000 people forced to leave their homes.
After seeing the catastrophic damage in Midland and Sanford, Oakland County Commissioner Eileen Kowall (R-White Lake) decided to take action. At the June 4 board of commissioners meeting, she introduced a resolution requesting annual reports on the condition and safety of Oakland County dams.
“It’s been something that’s kind of been overlooked and certainly we need to know where we’re at with these situations,” she said. “None of us wants to see remotely what happened in Midland to happen here.”
Originally, the resolution proposed that all dams that fall under the jurisdiction of the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s (OCWRC) office, which are 35, be inspected yearly. But since the OCWRC already does official inspections of the dams that fall under their jurisdiction every three years – a precedent set by the state’s guidelines – this resolution would now instead ask for reports in the other two years to reflect any repairs performed or changes in status.
“Say if that three-year report would have a problem with a dam, structural integrity, etc., that it needed repairs, that would be in the next annual report that they would provide to the board of commissioners,” Kowall said.
The resolution would also make the results publicly availably online. Those results would include not only the OCWRC dams, but private, state oversight dams as well.
“My resolution also asks for the listing of all the dams whose jurisdiction they’re under, who’s responsible for the dam, the age of the dam, the ratings, and quite a bit more information,” she said. “In talking with the OCWRC, I said that I don’t think we need to necessarily have a significant or comprehensive report on every small dam in the county, that’s say, holding up a mud puddle.”
Said board of commissioners resolution went to the Health and Human Services Committee in the county in June. Kowall sounded positive it would pass.
“It’s good to make sure we have information available to the public when people recognize issues around things like this. That’s a good opportunity to get the education out there. We’re happy to do that,” said Jim Nash, Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner, about the resolution.
“I just didn’t want anything happening here in Oakland County when we could’ve done something to assess the situation and to prevent it,” Kowall said.
With approximately 150 dams in Oakland County, that’s a lot to worry about, and a significant amount with an aging infrastructure.
Take for example, the Pontiac Lake Dam, one of the area’s older dams at 100-years-old. Even though it's condition rate is fair, it's hazard potential is considered high.
“They’ve done some work to it over the years, but at some point in time it’s going to have to be fixed, completely redone,” said former state Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake). “We talk about economic development...you take an area where basically it was cow pastures and it went to cottages, and now they’re building $600,000, $700,000 houses in there. It is an economic boom for the area – but if that dam ever broke, I know of at least three subdivisions downriver that would probably be wiped out.”
There are seven other dams in Oakland County with a high hazard potential, including the Lake Louise-Ruth Johnson Dam in Brandon Township; the Oxbow Lake Level Control Dam in White Lake; the Sylvan Otter-Price Dam-Dawson Mill Pond in Pontiac; the Clarkston Dam; the Lake Neva Dam in White Lake; Wildwood Lake Dam in Whitmore Lake; and Heron Dam along the Huron River.
The hazard ratings for dams are broken into three parts: low, significant, and high being the most concerning. With a high hazard rating there is expected to have potential loss of life and serve impacts on everything from houses to cars, and for high and significant hazard ratings an emergency action plan must be in place.
To be clear though, the hazard rating has nothing to do with a dam's condition.
“A dam rated as high hazard doesn’t mean that it’s at a high hazard (for) having a catastrophic failure, it means that if there were to be a failure the downstream effects would be a high hazard for impacts on populations and cities and infrastructure,” said Nick Assendelft, EGLE media relations and public information.
Like Quarton Dam in Birmingham, one of the area’s oldest dams, which is in satisfactory condition as of its last inspection but has a significant hazard potential. Another in the area with a significant hazard potential, yet in satisfactory condition, is the Endicott Lake Dam in Bloomfield Hills, which also has three other dams, all with low hazard ratings, Cranbrook Lake Dam and Cranbrook Foundation Dam, and the Vhay Lake Dam. The former two didn’t have a rating listed but the Vhay Lake Dam did and said it was in poor condition. The Upper Straits Lake Level Control Dam in West Bloomfield is in poor condition but currently being worked on; luckily its hazard potential is low, much like another dam nearby, the Storm Retention Pond Dam.
Currently, the majority of dams in Oakland County have a low hazard rating and are used for recreational purposes, with only a handful being used for flood control or irrigation. Of those dams, the majority are owned privately, about 80 – which can be anywhere from owned by one person, to a few, or a homeowners association – with the rest spilt between local municipalities and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
There’s serious cause for concern for dams now, but throughout its history there have already been some major dam failures in the county.
Like the retention dam failure in Springfield Township’s Waumegah Lake in 1996. Don’t bother looking it up online – you won’t find much about it.
“It’s probably not going to be one of their proudest moments of the drain commission,” said Mike Kowall, who noted that he didn’t believe anyone in this current administration was there when it happened.
“What had happened was, I believe, there was a battle between Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (now EGLE) at the time and the drain commission (OCWRC) at the time,” Kowall said. “Everybody was busy pointing fingers and the next thing you know people woke up the next morning and there was no water in the lake, which would be kind of depressing.”
According to Ryan Woloszyk, civil engineer with the OCWRC, emergency contractors were called in to do some temporary repairs and in 1998, it became the OCWRC’s newest lake to get a legal level. A new dam was then constructed and as of its last full inspection in 2019, it had a satisfactory condition rating, even though its hazard potential is still significant.
The OCWRC operates and maintains eight lake level augmentation wells/pumps and 36 lake level control structures, many of which are dams, including the Waumegah Lake Dam, and is responsible for the 54 lakes with legally established lake levels, many of which are chains of lakes. These lakes are spread across five watersheds – 34 in the Clinton, 13 in the Huron, two in the Rouge, three in the Shiawassee and two in the Flint.
“Most of our lake levels were set in the '60’s and '70’s,” Woloszyk said. “When the lake level was created, a district was created with it that said these residents within this area are paying for the repairs, maintenance, or rebuild of the structure. It’s a direct tax to the residents that are benefiting from the lake.”
Nash said any project the OCWRC plans to do goes to those special assessment districts before anything happens.
In 2020, the total assessment for lake levels was $819,000 estimated for the residents of the current special assessment districts. The average annual budget for the dams ranges from the $5,000 at the Waumegah Lake Dam to $67,000 for the Waterford Multi-Lakes Control Dam-Van Norman Lake, in Waterford Township.
Recently, the OCWRC has completed multiple projects, such as the pipe under the road at the Waterford Multi-Lakes Control Maceday Lake which was replaced. Bevins Lake Control Dam, which has a poor condition rating, is slated for a replacement project that they are currently putting together.
And they are currently in the last stages of replacing the Upper Straits Lake Level Control Dam, West Bloomfield Township, which ballooned the dam’s annual budget to $25,000. That project was not included in the total assessment for 2020 and will cost $900,000.
Nash said that project is going to be paid off over some years, but it’ll be worth spending almost $1 million.
“There’s about a two-inch level difference between the two lakes,” Nash said about the dam. “They all wanted it so you know, you do what they ask for. This should last another 100 years. This lake will be at the level it needs to be for a very, very long time.”
Overall, the condition of the majority of those structures under the OCWRC’s jurisdiction are fair or satisfactory, even those for which they’re working on a replacement plan. Woloszyk said every single site is visited at least once a week.
“We try to take care of the everyday things while they’re out there,” said Michael McMahon, chief engineer at the OCWRC. “Some of them are as simple as clearing debris that could obstruct the gates from opening and closing.”
“The Midland dams had been out of disrepair for 10-plus years...if anything even got remotely near that in high risk or significant risk there would be a project happening immediately,” Woloszyk said. “Anything involving our high or significant risk dams is addressed as soon as it's noted or at the very least, monitored extensively to make sure that it’s not going to pose a risk to our downstream residents or to the structure itself.”
How did these legal lake levels – established under provisions of Part 307, Inland Lake Levels, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, PA 451 of 1994 – get here in the first place?
“It’s a process,” Nash laughed. “You have to get two-thirds of the people who live on shore to sign up for it, which is not easy. It’s fairly uncommon to get new ones.”
After the petition has been signed by two-thirds of the landowners it must be submitted to the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. From there, the board would initiate action to determine what the normal level of the lake is. The OCWRC would do the study to figure out the feasibility of establishing and maintaining a legal level. The study, along with the petition, would go to a judge to set up the special assessment district and also set the legal level at the time.
There would also be public hearings and action by the circuit court.
Once those levels are set, they are very rarely re-visited. If they did, they would have to go through the whole process again.
“It’s something that’s definitely not undertaken...I don’t think we’ve ever actually reset one,” Woloszyk said. “And it’s set by the courts. That’s nothing we set, it’s a legal precedent.”
The only time those lake levels – two-tenths of a foot is their target range – change at all is when the seasons do. Nash said in the winter they are brought down a little for when the thaw theoretically comes in the spring. But that’s it.
“It’s fairly uncommon to get new ones,” Nash said. “We haven’t had one for years.”
The closest they’ve come to a new one is on Scott Lake in Waterford Township. Woloszyk said their improvement board is currently in the process of discussing the possibility of a dam. He said it would be at least five years down the road before it actually happens.
“They’ve tried in the past to create a dam,” he said. “They want to be able to control the level of their lake. It’s up and down all the time and there’s no control over the lake levels currently. So recreational usage is kind of hard to know what you’re going to have, where your dock should be at, if you don’t have any control.”
One of dams primary purposes is recreation, especially in the case of a river getting a dam to turn that area into a lake. But the history of dams in Michigan, and Oakland County, goes back much further than when the biggest worry was figuring out where to dock your boat.
“We’ve been building dams for eons,” said Jim Hegarty, past president of the Michigan Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “In Michigan, its (dams) are a big part of our history because we used to be forested and we were deforested...they used rivers to float logs to sawmills, which were created by dams.”
“This region of the country, when it was settled by colonial settlers, some of the first infrastructure they built were dams built for grist mills and saw mills,” said Nicholas J. Schroeck, associate dean of Experiential Education, Associate Professor of Law, director, Environmental Law Clinic, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
During the early to mid-1800s, dams were built so people could figure out a way to use water as power to do different types of work.
Many of those dams are still there today, even though the mills are not, and created the plethora of millponds in the county.
Schroeck’s parents live on one, the Winkler Mill Pond, in Rochester Hills, where the Winkler Pond Dam is. The mill is no longer there but due to the dam they have to still maintain it and pay flood insurance.
Moving in to the early 1900s, during the age of electricity, there was a push for hydroelectric power dams, like the one in Edenville. These dams were built to generate electricity, sell that, and make money. This big uptick happened primarily during World War II and went in to the 1950s to create domestic energy.
“The idea is you were basically using the force of water flowing downhill to spin turbines,” Schroeck said.
Currently, there are about 100 dams in Michigan under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) due to the amount of hydropower they produce. According to the National Inventory of Dams, there are none used for this purpose in Oakland County. At least not anymore.
Once there was the Holly Dam, completed in 1840. It's original purpose was to power a mill, one that is no longer there. As of its last inspection in 2017, it had a poor condition rating and a significant hazard potential, meaning that if it were to fail there would be a possible loss of life and significant impacts.
During this boom of dams in the mid-20th century, people began to dam up rivers and make lakes, like many in Oakland County, so that people could have lakefront property.
Most of the dams in the county were built for this purpose..
The National Inventory of Dams stats put the average age of Oakland County dams at 75-years-old, about 25 years older than the estimated 50-year design life of a dam.
“So, design life as a term is kind of our best guess,” Trumble said. “We know that the life cycle of concrete in this environment is about 50 years and steel is about the same.”
“So, when we say design life is 50 years that doesn’t mean that at the end of 50 years the dam fails on its 50th birthday,” he continued. “There’s a lot that can be done to extend the life cycle of a dam, like proper maintenance and upkeep.”
In Oakland County, there are multiple dams well past that age. In 1829 and 1835, the Lake Orion Dam and Davisburg Dam were completed, respectively. Then there’s the Quarton Dam, built in 1921 and the Wolverine Lake Dam, done in 1925. Many of these older dams have a high or significant hazard rating but do have a fair or satisfactory condition rating.
“If you think about Quarton Lake, if that dam failed you’d have some issues downstream in Birmingham and further,” Schroeck said.
Aging infrastructure isn’t only an issue in Oakland County but across the entire state.
In 2009, Hegarty of American Society of Civil Engineers authored a 2009 Report Card on Michigan's dams, where the overall grade was a D. Age played a large role in that grade and he considered it the most significant issue.
The most recent report card for Michigan’s infrastructure from 2018 moved up the grade slightly to a C-. Of the 2,600 dams in the state, two-thirds of Michigan’s dams are older than their typical design life and in the next five years, over 80 percent of Michigan’s dams will be over 50 years of age.
After the big boom in dam building from the 1930s to 1960s, it has slowed down considerably.
“You don’t see the type of dam building today that there was prior to all of our environmental laws being passed in the 1970s,” Schroeck said.
Trumble, from EGLE’s dam safety unit, has been with the unit for 10 years and said he’s only permitted construction on three during his time there. The most recent Report Card for Michigan’s Infrastructure stated there’s only been 86 new dams built in the last 25 years.
“We’re starting to realize the cost, the liability, environmental impacts that constructing a dam has,” he said. Trumble also mentioned there’s less of a demand for hydropower, one of the key uses of dams in the past.
For Brian Graber, senior director, River Restoration Program, at the non-profit American Rivers, who work to remove dams, public safety is probably the biggest concern when it comes to dams but there are three big ecological reasons to remove dams as well.
One, dams serve as a barrier to fish and other species to move around. Two, dams turn river habitats into lake habitats, causing a large change in species composition and knocking out those which would naturally be there. Lastly, dams have an impact on the water quality. With all of that water sitting in the sun, it warms up, having a direct impact on the species that need to survive in rivers.
Michigan has removed quite a few dams already. Graber said Michigan has removed more dams than any other state except three, including the Paint Creek Dam in 2011.
Dam removal played a role in why the report card grade went up from a D to a C-. Trumble said Michigan averages about five or six dam removal projects a year.
Local grant opportunities include the DNR Fisheries Habitat Grant Program. The program’s objective is to support a variety of activities that benefit fisheries, aquatic resources, and the public, including dam repair and removal, and now has three different programs under it. For 2019, there was $350,000 available for dam management.
According to Joe Nohner, a resource analyst with the MDNR Fisheries Division and co-administer for the grant program, about two-thirds of the projects for dam management are dam removal.
“You get long-term health and human safety benefits and long-term ecological benefits when you remove a dam,” he said.
Nohner said they get grant applicants for both small, private dams – 75 percent of the 2,600 dams in the state fall under this – to much larger dams.
One application grant that’s currently pending is the Davisburg Mill Pond Dam in Oakland County, a dam that’s 150-years-old and serviced a mill that’s been gone for almost a century. It falls under the jurisdiction of Oakland County Parks.
“Essentially, what we’re trying to do is restore the natural stream channel,” said Melissa Prowse, supervisor, Planning & Resource Development for Oakland County Parks. “The millpond and the dam are actually stopping up the tributaries to the Shiawassee River in that area.”
Like much to do with dam repair or removal, the project is very dependent on finding funding. It’s estimated it will cost $1.65 million and they currently have it budgeted in their five-year forecast.
Why remove it now though?
Prowse said they had an inspection done a few years ago that indicated the dam was in disrepair. An outlet pipe the water flows through is crushed on top so it’s losing its flow. Even though the dam is considered low hazard it doesn’t meet the state’s 100-year flood guidelines. Michigan has some of the least stringent guidelines in the country. There’s also an impasse over the top of the road since it doesn’t meet those guidelines, causing a hazard.
Oakland County Parks, who have been partners with Springfield Township on the management and maintenance of the dam since 2014, didn’t take removing it lightly. Officials did a visibility study to see what their options were. Ultimately, the decision was made to remove it completely and not replace it.
At this point, the dam isn’t even serving a recreational purpose. Prowse said Springfield Township has been trying to manage the millpond park’s beach around the pond for years with little success.
“So, if we do remove it and restore the wetlands in that area, the township is interested in putting in trails and overlooks through that area to provide, essentially, a new and different recreation experience for the residents,” Prowse said.
Removal of the dam would also include restoration of aquatic habitat in a headwater segment of the Shiawassee River and connectivity in the restored riparian wetlands for species including the eastern massasauga rattlesnake and Blanding’s turtle, according to the grant application.
Upstream of the Davisburg Mill Pond Dam is the Trout Pond Dam, owned by the DNR. Prowse mentioned that DNR is in the process to figure out how to remove that dam as well. If successful, between the two removals, they would restore 3,000 linear feet of stream.
Due to the state’s guidelines – which requires in-depth inspections of dams every three, four or five years, depending on its hazard rating – that inspection Prowse mentioned was done by the state’s dam safety unit. That unit covers around 1,100 of the state’s 2,600 dams, all of which fall under Part 307, Inland Lake Levels, and/or Part 315, Dam Safety, of the National Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA, 451 as amended. The rest either fall under FERC or are non-regulated due to the consequences of failure being so small. For those, it’s the job of the owner to make sure they are checked regularly.
These dams are either those with legal lake levels – like those under the OCWRC’s jurisdiction, who send their results in – or they are over six feet in height and hold back at least five acres of water.
Trumble plays a large role in the unit considering he covers dams in the entire lower half of the state –all 31 counties.
He’s one of three people on the unit. The other two are Dan DeVaun, who covers 52 Michigan counties, and their unit supervisor Mario Fusco. The annual budget is between $350,000-$400,000.
Trumble inspects between 20 to 40 dams per year and receives at least another 100 inspections from consulting engineers to review. Most private dam owners are good about getting the results in to them though.
“It behooves them too, because they don’t want to have a situation were they say, well, I’m not going to do the inspection this year and then something happens,” said Assendelft from EGLE. “It’s an opportunity for them to make sure they’re doing their due diligence so they don’t end up in any kind of a situation where a lack of action on their part ends up causing an issue.”
For those owners whose dams are in need of repairs and don’t do anything about it within the given timeline, the dam safety unit typically starts with a letter to the owner. From there, if no action is taken, they can start imposing civil fines, which are up to $10,000 per day of violation. If it escalates far enough they can order the owner to limit operations of the dam or remove it.
Trumble said that even if their compliance rates were at 100 percent, dam owners don’t always have the resources and the hazard wouldn't be eliminated. Fines may be a tool in their tool box but typically they try to work with the dam owner to get the issue solved, especially because they know as well as anyone that funding is one of the biggest barriers.
With so many concerns about dams – the cost, keeping up on repairs, how they affect the environment – what’s the point in keeping them up anyway? Does it make sense?
“There’s only two conditions under which a dam makes economic sense,” Hegarty said “One is if it's used to produce hydropower and it produces more than it costs. The other is if you have a special assessment district like you have in a lake association, where all of the benefiting parties would be assessed on whatever it costs to maintain a dam and keep it running, repair it when it needs repairs.”
The latter really does have quite the economic affect on cities given how much is paid to property taxes.
“I think the real benefits are property values – it’s nice to live on the water. If they are all-sports lakes and people can do more activities...then of course fishing, too. We overlook that a lot, a lot of people love fishing...it’s a very lucrative hobby,” Schroeck said.
For those looking in to buying lakefront property a bit of research before is recommended. Commissioner Kowall was almost affected by the Edenville Dam herself.
“I was going to check out that area because it sounded like it might be a nice area...to have a cottage or something,” she said. “I was like, woo, glad I didn’t buy there.”