The catastrophic failure of two dams on the Tittabawassee River in central Michigan this week is prompting questions about the safety of the state’s dam infrastructure.
When the Edenville Dam near Midland breached Tuesday, the lake it once held back cascaded downstream, topping the Sanford Dam seven miles away and driving more than 10,000 people from their homes.
There are more than 2,500 dams in Michigan. Two are on the Grand River near downtown Lansing. That fact may give local residents a moment of pause and perhaps wonder aloud, “could a Midland happen here?”
Lansing Board of Water and Light general manager Dick Peffley is inclined to say “no.”
“We’re very confident about the integrity of our dams,” says Peffley.
The BWL operates the Moores Park and North Lansing dams. Neither produces hydroelectric power anymore.
But Moores Park could be retrofitted for that purpose again. Peffley says that dam falls under the purview of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“It’s inspected annually by them, and any recommendations they have are implemented,” Peffley says. “Our North Lansing Dam is monitored by the state of Michigan and is also inspected by the state quite frequently.”
But that’s not the norm for most Michigan dams which are privately owned.
Another issue is obsolescence. Many smaller dams were built decades ago to run mills that are now long gone.
“The economic benefit of most of these dams is zero,” says licensed professional engineer Jim Hegarty.
Environmentalists add most dams don’t provide any real flood control, either.
“The greatest risk of flooding is if the dam fails,” says Brian Graber, senior director of river restoration with the nonprofit American Rivers.
American Rivers supports removing dams wherever possible.
The Lansing Board of Water and Light’s Dick Peffley says there’s no immediate plans to dismantle the Moores Park and North Lansing dams, but he’s open to the possibility.
“If a proposal was brought forward that met with the approval of the landowners, the city, all the government agencies to remove it, we would be onboard for that,” he says.
Back in Midland, the cleanup of what some are calling a 500-year flood continues. But even after the debris is cleared and property restored, the legal battles will continue. The Michigan Attorney General’s office is suing dam owner Boyce Hydro. The state alleges the company illegally lowered the water level of Wixom Lake behind the Edenville Dam.