Ag­ing dams could give way to more disas­ters


san­ford, mich. — When the dam broke, the ge­og­ra­phy here was al­most in­stantly re­drawn.

Houses that once sat lake­side with pri­vate docks now stare out over mud flats pocked with plea­sure boats heav­ing awk­wardly on their sides. Be­low, where all the wa­ter went, busi­nesses and homes look churned and strafed, the roof of a car deal­er­ship has col­lapsed, power poles lean per­ilously above murky la­goons that formed when the con­crete in town gave way.

Un­usu­ally heavy spring rains were the first hint of the im­pend­ing dis­as­ter this week, pour­ing into lo­cal lakes un­til the cen­tu­ry­old Edenville Dam could take no more. As it gave way, wa­ter lev­els dropped pre­cip­i­tously, as if some­body had pulled the plug. The tor­rents ram­paged on, dam­ag­ing a sec­ond dam and forc­ing 11,000 res­i­dents to flee from the Midland area. Many have re­turned, left to gaze with in­credulity on their new sur­round­ings.

“That was my dream, and we worked so hard and we got our first ac­tual home and it’s on a lake,” said Bar­bie Gau­dard, sur­vey­ing the fam­ily’s back­yard where a molder­ing carp was protrud­ing from the sand. Hav­ing grown up in the area, the Gau­dards were ac­cus­tomed to spring flood­ing, but they had no clue

when they bought their wa­ter­front prop­erty in 2016 that the dam was a tick­ing time bomb. “Now it’s just gone.”

The dis­as­ter here in Michi­gan this week took some res­i­dents by sur­prise, but it didn’t come as such a shock to hy­drol­o­gists and civil en­gi­neers, who have warned that cli­mate change and in­creased runoff from de­vel­op­ment is putting more pres­sure on poorly main­tained dams, many of them built — like those in Midland — to gen­er­ate power early in the 20th cen­tury. What hap­pened in Michi­gan, they say, could hap­pen to many other ag­ing dams across the coun­try.

“Many of these dams are past their de­sign life span,” said Frank Di­turi, chair­man of the Board­man River Im­ple­men­ta­tion Team, one of the largest dam re­moval and restora­tion projects in the Great Lakes Basin. “And the con­di­tions that they were de­signed un­der aren’t the con­di­tions that ex­ist now.”

Brian Graber, se­nior di­rec­tor for river restora­tion at the non­profit Amer­i­can Rivers, said there are nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples, in­clud­ing re­cent dam breaches in South Carolina and Ne­braska and the 2017 evac­u­a­tion of nearly 200,000 peo­ple in Oroville, Calif., where the spill­ways of the na­tion’s tallest dam on the Feather River failed af­ter heavy rains.

“It’s hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where,” Graber said.

Un­like roads and bridges, the ma­jor­ity of the na­tion’s dams are pri­vately owned, in­clud­ing about 75 per­cent of the dams in Michi­gan, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Civil En­gi­neers. Many pri­vate dam own­ers do not fi­nance reg­u­lar re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion projects, ac­cord­ing to the ASCE. And if dams lose their fed­eral li­cens­ing — and thus their power rev­enue — there of­ten isn’t a clear mech­a­nism to pay for needed re­pairs and up­keep.

The ASCE gave the na­tion’s 95,000 dams a D grade in its most re­cent in­fra­struc­ture re­port card. Their av­er­age age is 56, and as the pop­u­la­tion grows, more dams — like the Edenville and San­ford struc­tures that failed in Michi­gan — are des­ig­nated “high haz­ard,” be­cause of the po­ten­tial for their fail­ure to re­sult in loss of life. The As­so­ci­a­tion of State Dam Safety Of­fi­cers (ASDSO) has iden­ti­fied 2,000 dams that are in de­fi­cient con­di­tion and carry a high haz­ard rat­ing.

Many older dams have lost the pur­pose for which they were built: gen­er­at­ing elec­tric­ity or run­ning mills. Ac­cord­ing to an Amer­i­can Rivers data­base, more than 1,700 such dams have been re­moved, in­clud­ing five last year in Michi­gan.

The fund­ing for that process is usu­ally for habi­tat restora­tion, ac­cord­ing to Graber, who said re­moval projects are of­ten sup­ported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion or non­prof­its.

“Public safety is an im­por­tant sec­ondary ben­e­fit,” he said.

The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency has fund­ing for re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing dams with the high­est haz­ard rat­ings, but for the past two years that has amounted to just $10 mil­lion di­vided among all states.

“It’s a small dent” in re­pairs that could cost bil­lions, said Bill Mccormick, ASDSO’S pres­i­den­t­elect.

But the public safety chal­lenges are far more com­plex than sim­ply fix­ing the ex­ist­ing struc­tures, as cli­mate change in­creases the like­li­hood of heavy rains and a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion leads to greater runoff — and more peo­ple who could be af­fected by fail­ures, said Steve Bowen, a me­te­o­rol­o­gist and head of Catas­tro­phe In­sight at Aon.

“You have to be more for­ward­think­ing,” Bowen said. “A 100year event may be a 75- or 50-year event in the fu­ture.”

The Midland dis­as­ter came af­ter the city re­ceived 3.83 inches of rain on Tues­day — its wettest day since Septem­ber 2015. The past four years were all ranked among Michi­gan’s top 15 wettest years on record. The 2018 Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment found that the Mid­west is a heavy pre­cip­i­ta­tion hotspot. Sim­i­lar trends, though less pro­nounced, have been recorded in other parts of the coun­try.

Mccormick said dam safety anal­y­sis has un­til re­cently been based on past risk — and how a his­tor­i­cal struc­ture can be up­dated with new tech­nol­ogy — rather than in­clud­ing cli­mate change and other vari­ables. Many in­fra­struc­ture groups, he said, are ask­ing, “How do we all col­lec­tively now ramp up to ac­com­mo­date those things?”

The first struc­ture to fail in Michi­gan this week — the Edenville Dam — has been at the cen­ter of on­go­ing dis­putes about its safety and use.

The dam, owned by Boyce Hy­dro Power since 2007, used to pro­duce a small amount of elec­tric­ity un­til a dis­pute with the Fed­eral En­ergy Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion cul­mi­nated with the agency re­vok­ing the com­pany’s li­cense to use the dam for elec­tri­cal gen­er­a­tion in 2018. The agency said that Boyce Hy­dro had re­fused for 13 years to build a spill­way that could di­vert flood­wa­ters away from the dam, which it said was in dan­ger of fail­ing in a heavy storm. The agency said Boyce Hy­dro had an “ex­ten­sive record of non­com­pli­ance.”

In a state­ment Fri­day, Boyce said that it spent hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars on en­gi­neer­ing and con­struc­tion to meet fed­eral stan­dards and that FERC’S de­mands for ad­di­tional im­prove­ments — which would have cost more than $8 mil­lion — were be­yond the com­pany’s fi­nan­cial means. The strip­ping of their li­cense left them with no way to cover any more im­prove­ments, the com­pany said.

Michi­gan’s De­part­ment of En­vi­ron­ment, Great Lakes, and En­ergy as­sumed reg­u­la­tory author­ity for Edenville in 2018, and in an ini­tial in­spec­tion found it to be in “fair” struc­tural con­di­tion, though with con­cerns about its spill­way ca­pac­ity.

The com­pany said that it has been work­ing for years to man­age the wa­ter lev­els in the lake the dam holds back, but it ended up in a dis­pute with home­own­ers in the area who were dis­mayed when wa­ter lev­els went too low for recre­ational use — and they sued to keep wa­ter lev­els higher. The state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral also sued, al­leg­ing that the low wa­ter lev­els were hav­ing a neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact.

Boyce said the moves to keep wa­ter lev­els higher were among the main rea­sons the dams failed this week.

Boyce said that “in an­tic­i­pa­tion of what was pre­dicted to be a ma­jor storm sys­tem, Boyce Hy­dro’s op­er­a­tors be­gan low­er­ing the wa­ter lev­els” but the “mas­sive vol­ume of rain­fall” over­whelmed the struc­tures. Had they been al­lowed to keep the wa­ter lower, Boyce said, “the dam would have been able to han­dle and safety pass the vol­ume of wa­ter gen­er­ated by this storm. Sadly, Boyce was not al­lowed to do so, and in fact, was sued for do­ing so.”

The com­pany said its man­age­ment and em­ploy­ees “are deeply dis­tressed by the tragic re­sults of the un­prece­dented storm that hit the area this week. . . . We sym­pa­thize with those who have lost prop­erty and been forced to re­lo­cate due the re­sult­ing flood­ing in Glad­win and Midland coun­ties.”

On Fri­day, lit­i­ga­tion con­tin­ued as flood vic­tims filed a class-ac­tion law­suit against the dams’ own­ers and op­er­a­tors. An­other lo­cal res­i­dent, Jim Sper­ling, a trustee on the Edenville Town­ship Board, sued the state.

Sper­ling moved into a house along the banks of the Tit­tabawassee River 25 years ago. The house sits atop a slope, where he and his wife had as­sumed they would be spared any kind of flood­ing.

The prop­erty was in­un­dated this week. On Fri­day, Sper­ling ges­tured to the spot where two boats and a pon­toon sat, lashed to a small dock. There was noth­ing left ex­cept mud and piles of branches.

“The state’s got to take some blame,” Sper­ling said, also not­ing that some re­spon­si­bil­ity should lie with the com­pany. “And God gave us the rain.”

Wil­son Gum III, 58, who owns Alex’s Fam­ily Rail­side Res­tau­rant in San­ford, a diner that ad­ver­tises se­nior dis­counts and ice cream, re­turned to the build­ing Fri­day to take stock of the dam­age with an in­sur­ance agent.

While the out­side of the build­ing ap­peared in­tact, in­side was a dis­as­ter. Flood­wa­ter had risen to the ceil­ing, toss­ing ta­bles, chairs, menus and kitchen equip­ment around “like a blender,” Gum said. Cof­fee beans were scat­tered on the floor, pink Sweet’n Low pack­ets were stuck to the wall. A walk-in re­frig­er­a­tor that was ripped off the back of the build­ing now bal­anced on its edge.

Gum said he never an­tic­i­pated the pos­si­bil­ity that the dam could break.

“No, ab­so­lutely not. I know that might sound kind of weird,” he said, stand­ing amid the dam­age in mud-streaked jeans. “I never thought this would hap­pen. . . . I don’t want to lay blame on any­body,” he said. “I think it’s a com­bi­na­tion of Mother Na­ture and there’s a lit­tle bit of a fault of man in there.”

“Many of these dams are past their de­sign life span. And the con­di­tions that they were de­signed un­der aren’t the con­di­tions that ex­ist now.” Frank Di­turi, chair­man of the Board­man River Im­ple­men­ta­tion Team


Flood­wa­ters are seen in Midland, Mich., af­ter one dam col­lapsed and an­other was com­pro­mised.


Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers pa­trol in a res­cue boat in Midland, Mich. Cli­mate change and in­creased runoff from de­vel­op­ment could spell dis­as­ter for the na­tion’s many ag­ing dams, ex­perts say.

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