Michigan has a dam problem, as the Midland disaster has shown. We’re not alone — but the Great Lakes State faces unique challenges in remedying the issue.
Across the country, dams are increasingly becoming a relic of America’s infrastructural past. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) estimates that the average age of the country’s more than 91,000 dams is approaching 60 years old. Dams are generally built to safely last about 50 years.
The situation is worse in Michigan, where infrastructure age and neglect has taken its toll on everything from roads to oil pipelines. And just as a collapsed bridge can cause significant damage and endanger human lives, a failed dam can displace thousands, cost many millions of dollars in damage, destroy buildings and even take human lives.
The average age of the state’s roughly 2,500 dams is almost 15 years past the national average, which also means that about 90% of Michigan’s dams reached their life expectancy this year.
Add the inherent risks of aging infrastructure to a decades-long lack of underinvestment from both the state and federal government, plus more serious effects from climate change than in other regions, and you have a state scattered with increasingly old, potentially dangerous structures that Michigan largely does not have the money to fix or remove.
No situation better exemplifies this peril than the disastrous Midland-area dam failures in May. The collapse of one old, neglected dam led to the breach of another, causing untold damage which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says will likely cost the state around $200 million to fix.
According to a 2016 estimate, Michigan’s dams alone will need an investment of more than $220 million over the next 20 years just to ensure their safety. An earlier report in 2012 put that number at $377 million just for Michigan’s non-federal dams.
“It is striking that, you know, you could fix a lot of dams and take care of a lot of these problems for the type of money that is going to be spent on cleaning up from this disaster,” said Mark Ogden, a technical specialist and project manager for Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO).
Currently, the state of Michigan spends $74,200 in general funds for the dam safety program, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).
ASDSO last year estimated that nationally, it will take more than $70.67 billion to rehabilitate all federal and non-federal dams in the country.
And unlike the much more visible indicators of roads and bridges, dams go largely under the radar when it comes to a state’s infrastructure needs — sometimes, until it’s too late.
There are two distinct characteristics needed to paint a picture of the state of Michigan’s (regulated) dams: Condition and hazard potential.
A condition assessment for each structure is based on whether there are any existing or potential safety deficiencies, as well as how the dam is likely to perform under various capacity conditions. “Satisfactory” is the highest rating for this assessment, followed by “fair,” “poor” and “unsatisfactory.”
There are only around a dozen state-regulated dams in Michigan rated as unsatisfactory. More (around 70) are rated in poor condition; the largest portions are in either fair or satisfactory condition.
Age isn’t always a surefire indicator of condition, but it is often a big factor. At least 228 of Michigan’s dams were built 101 years ago or more; almost half of those were built pre-1900. Dams are built with a certain expected lifespan in mind. Beyond that, upgrades and other repairs are needed to ensure their safety — and not all dam owners have the means to.
Like the two failed Midland dams owned by Boyce Hydro, about 70% of Michigan’s dams that are large enough to be regulated by either state or federal agencies are privately owned. Similarly, around 62% of the nation’s 91,457 dams are privately owned.
That private ownership of aging infrastructure comes with inherent risks. The Edenville Dam situation involved a delinquent private owner racking up a long list of safety violations and other issues over the years. Luke Trumble, EGLE dam safety engineer for the southern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, said that this is fortunately not the norm as most owners stay in compliance as much as they can afford to — but there is always a potential for that kind of situation.
“By and large, most dam owners want to do the right thing,” Trumble said. “They don’t want to have a dam fail or don’t want to neglect a dam. But it comes [down] to the funding: Does the owner have the means to adequately maintain a dam, and what other funding sources are available to help them out?”
Ogden pointed out that the funding for dam maintenance depends on the owner, and if the private owner’s revenue is not enough to pay for repairs and upgrades, there is little that the state or feds can do besides pressuring the owners to act.
“You can go through the entire enforcement process, and it still comes down to the fact that they don’t have any funding. So, nothing is going to happen unless there’s an emergency situation, which is not really a good way to go about that,” Ogden said.
It’s not just the condition of a dam that tells a story about how much of a risk it poses. Not all dams that are old or in otherwise poor condition necessarily pose a significant danger; that depends more on their hazard potential.
Hazard potential is “assigned based on, if the dam were to fail, what would be the downstream consequences,” Trumble said. “… So a dam can be in excellent condition and still be a high hazard.”
Depending on where a dam is located, it will be assigned one of three different levels of hazard potential: low, significant or high.
Upon failure, low hazard dams are likely to cause minor impacts like a small flood on agricultural land. The majority (around 70%) of Michigan’s state-regulated dams have this rating, according to EGLE.
Dams with “significant hazard” (around 131 state-regulated dams in Michigan) potential pose more of a risk. There is a greater potential for significant impacts in the event of a breach, coupled with a possible loss of human life.
High hazard dams, on the other hand, are likely to destroy houses and inflict other serious damage — including expected loss of human life — upon collapse. EGLE’s data shows that there are 85 state-regulated dams in this category, while the USACE database puts Michigan’s total of state and federally-regulated high hazard dams at 172.
Those high hazard dams include the now-collapsed Edenville and Sanford dams in Midland, which were also impacted by old age. Both were completed in 1925.
“We average about two dam failures a year in Michigan, and that’s kind of been fairly consistent for the last several years. And every once in a while, one of those dam failures is of a high hazard potential dam that has significant downstream impacts,” Trumble said.
A dangerous set of conditions
According to EGLE, six dams in Michigan have the dangerous combination of a “poor” condition rating and a high hazard potential.
Those six include the now-collapsed Edenville Dam in Midland County. Privately owned by Boyce Hydro, the 95-year-old gravity dam collapsed on May 19 and set off a chain reaction of massive flooding down the Tittabawassee River in Midland and nearby counties.
But the other five still stand. Downstate, the privately owned Portage Plant Dam in St. Joseph County is deteriorating with age at 98 years old. Trumble said EGLE is planning enforcement action soon, as attempts to get the “delinquent” owner to engage in the process have not been successful and inspection reports have not been submitted to the state in years.
A little further North, the Buttermilk Creek Detention Dam in Ottawa County is also privately owned and in need of work, despite being just 20 years old. More analysis by EGLE is required to determine whether the dam is truly in poor condition, but the private owner (the Ottawa County Drain Commissioner) has nonetheless been instructed to submit a plan to address its spillway capacity.
Two more dams in poor condition with high hazard potential are located in Northern Michigan’s Cheboygan County.
The 54-year-old Cornwall Creek Dam, owned by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is deteriorating and in need of a new spillway. That design and permitting process is currently underway and federal funding is being pursued for the project.
Little Black River Structure B near the city of Cheboygan is around the same age. Its main issue stems from a sinkhole that formed several years ago, which EGLE is monitoring. The state is working with the municipal owner to secure federal grant funds for the dam’s needed repairs and upgrades.
The final and perhaps the most worrying of the remaining poor condition/high hazard dams (on par with the Portage Plant Dam) is a privately owned, extremely old concrete dam in the Upper Peninsula’s Schoolcraft County.
Not only is the Manistique Papers Dam 101 years old, but deep cracks in its concrete structure have been letting invasive sea lampreys into Lake Michigan from the Manistique River.
The local paper company that owns the dam, Manistique Paper Inc., is in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings and no longer involved. This means that it’s up to state and federal agencies to step in and remedy the situation. They plan to do so by removing the dam within the next three to five years, which is by itself a laborious and expensive process.
Underfunded and left to decay
Significant investments are needed to rectify problems surrounding at-risk dams, for everything from major safety upgrades to removing a dam entirely.
But standing in the way is a severe, longstanding lack of funding for Michigan’s water and sewer infrastructure needs. The 21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report — prepared for former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2016 to lay out a thorough assessment of Michigan’s infrastructure needs and provide recommendations to address them — estimates that $225 million is needed in additional state funding over the next two decades just to make sure Michigan’s dams meet safety requirements into the future.
A costly expenditure, especially with other important issues and a pandemic eating away at the state budget, but exponentially costlier if another worst case scenario like Edenville were to happen.
The Edenville and Sanford dam failures alone have caused more than $200 million in damage to the surrounding areas since May 19. The resulting floods have also destroyed 150 homes and forced the evacuation of around 10,000 residents.
Notably, that figure of $200 million in damages in just one year is just short of what it would likely cost over 20 years to prevent numerous more, similarly expensive disasters.
“Easily, [for] the cost that you’re going to see in terms of cleanup and what people downstream are going to bear, you could fix these dams,” ASDSO’s Ogden said of the Midland situation.
Ogden is also the co-author of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) chapter on dam infrastructure in Michigan’s 2018 Infrastructure Report Card, which rates the state’s dams as a C- and cites the $225 million figure from the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report.
But funds to fix dams can be very hard to come by — especially, in many cases, for private owners.
Ogden and Trumble both noted that as long as the gap in infrastructure funding remains, there will always be the looming possibility of another disaster.
“We always worry that something like [the Edenville failure] can happen and will happen if significant appropriate investments and maintenance are not completed,” Trumble said, adding that investment into the structures themselves is the only real way to reduce the likelihood of failure.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of state or federal aid available to help maintain dams. So the root cause, I guess, is funding. Age and funding, of all the failures that we’re experiencing,” Trumble said.
At a Monday at a press conference in Sanford, Whitmer announced that she will request a federal disaster declaration for the Midland area within the next week. She acknowledged that there are many unanswered questions.
“There are all sorts of ramifications from the failure of those dams that we’re still getting our arms around,” Whitmer said.
Attorney General Dana Nessel also announced Tuesday that her office is suing Boyce Hydro on behalf of EGLE and the DNR to recoup costs that the state has spent on cleanup and restoration efforts.
Several legislators from the area have argued for more direct financial relief for their district. State Rep. Annette Glenn (R-Midland) introduced House Bill 5843 on Thursday, which would appropriate $6 million in disaster and emergency contingency funds to Midland County and the city of Midland.
“We’ve already had colleagues on both sides of the aisle in Lansing ask us how they can help, and I’m so proud to represent the people of this community and to witness the ways they’ve stepped up to help each other,” Glenn said.
The bill has been referred to the House Appropriations Committee. Neither Senate Appropriations Chair Jim Stamas (R-Midland) or House Appropriations Chair Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) responded to a request for comment on whether more funding toward dam maintenance is planned at the state level.
Exacerbating effects of climate change
Not only are Michigan’s dams already vulnerable due to age and underinvestment, but the worsening effects of climate change also pose a unique threat to the Great Lakes region and its infrastructure. This alone is a huge source of concern since most dams are not built to withstand historically extreme weather events.
Trumble said although there is not yet definitive research showing that dams fail at a higher rate because of climate change, those trends may begin to emerge. For now, he agrees it is undeniable that record-breaking storms in Michigan equates to a larger strain on the state’s aging infrastructure.
“As rainfall patterns and storm patterns and flooding changes over time, that’s a consideration that’s always on the forefront of our mind. If these events increase in magnitude, then consequently, the capacity of the dams to be able to pass those flows also needs to increase, or we’ll have more failures,” Trumble said.
Meanwhile, environmental advocacy groups have been warning that Michigan’s infrastructure is vastly ill-equipped to withstand the effects of climate change. After the Edenville and Sanford dams collapsed in mid-May, enviros released statements slamming the state’s underinvestments in infrastructure and the federal government’s loosened environmental regulations as underlying factors.
“The catastrophic flooding we are seeing in Midland is a culmination of the impacts of the increased strange and severe weather events that are amplified by climate change,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
Tom Zimnicki, program director of groundwater, surface water and agriculture at Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), added that “stress to critical infrastructure will only intensify as the effects of climate change are realized.”
In just the last six years, EGLE has recorded several 500-year storm events on different river systems throughout Michigan. These extreme events largely exceed the state’s regulatory criteria for dams and could foreshadow future disasters.
“Most dams are required to pass a 200-year flood [requirement] or below, or a 200-year flood or the 100-year flood safely,” Trumble said.