Old dams fail inspection but repair money isn’t there

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A committee raised more than a million dollars to modify dams along the Boardman River in Traverse City. Photo: Andrew Jameson.

LANSING – Lack of funding for dam repair or removal is an increasing concern as many across the state approach the end of their design life.

Built to last 50 years, more than 90 percent of the state’s 2,580 dams will have exceeded that lifespan in the next few years, according to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Dam Safety Unit. They include hazardous and abandoned dams, and those no longer used for their original purpose.

DEQ’s Dam Safety Unit requires that all dams of a particular size be inspected every three-to- five years, said Luke Trumble, a dam inspection supervisor.

Inspections take place and deficiencies get identified, but it takes money to modify or remove the dams, he said.

“The reality is that many dam owners have absolutely no money set aside to fix or maintain their dams,” said James Hegarty, a manager at Prein&Newhof, a civil and environmental engineering and consulting firm in Grand Rapids. “Even if they did, the willingness to do so is usually quite low.”

And the state doesn’t offer grants to assist private owners with maintenance, according to DEQ.

“The state has absolutely no money to help private owners fix dams,” Hegarty said. “They have none — zero — they are lucky to even have the few people doing inspections.”

The state also doesn’t require dam construction applicants to prove they can afford to maintain them, and in many cases owners lack the technical expertise to implement alternative safety measures, according to a report from Prein&Newhof.

Dams are classified as high, moderate or low hazard, depending on the risk they pose to people and property in the case of failure.

Approximately 87 percent are classified as low hazard because their failure would have insignificant effects on lives.

But the classification system overlooks a major factor: The risks posed to habitat, Hegarty said.

Golden Lotus dam in Vanderbilt, Otsego County, is classified as low hazard. But a dam gate failure in 2008 led to the death of “extensive amounts of fish,” according to a lawsuit against the owners by DEQ, the Attorney General and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

A surge of upstream water loaded with gill-clogging sediments buried and choked fish downstream on the Pigeon River causing them to die from lack of oxygen.

That was the third major fish kill at the dam, which still stands despite a 2010 court agreement to have it removed.

Trout Unlimited (TU), an organization whose mission is to protect watersheds that support wild trout and salmon, has pressed the owners to remove the dam.

“We have tried to work with them to pursue external sources of funding to help in removing this dam,” said Bryan Burroughs, TU executive director. “My guess is they don’t have the $600,000 required for the project but I’m not aware of them having pursued any grant options.”

Fundraising for dam projects is never easy, according to Todd Kalish, a fisheries supervisor with the DNR.

Kalish headed a committee that raised millions of dollars to remove the Sabin, Boardman and Brown Bridge dams, and modified the Union Street dam on the Boardman River in Traverse City, which had continuously failed to meet federal compliance standards for hydropower dams.

The owners, Grand Traverse County and Traverse City, assigned a board of state and federal officials and the public to gather community feedback and manage an engineering and feasibility study from 2005 to 2009.

“This was the most comprehensive dam disposition project in the history of Michigan,” said Kalish. “We were effective in getting funds from government agencies and private organizations like the Great Lakes Fishery Trust because we engaged the public in the decision- making. But it was a most intense and complex process.”

The engineering and feasibility study was also designed as a template for other communities facing similar problems.

But that’s just one of the few success stories, according to Ronald Brenke, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers Michigan Section.

He said it’s frustrating that the state isn’t investing in dam infrastructure, unlike other states.

“The lack of rehabilitation funding for Michigan dam owners is a critical infrastructure safety issue,” he said. “The fact that many dams in need of upgrading go without warrants the grade of ‘D’ for the state.”

4 thoughts on “Old dams fail inspection but repair money isn’t there

  1. Dave Im sorry but you really dont have a clue. It’s really to bad you couldn’t have been there to see the County,City,and State Representitives slither together like a bunch of snakes each month when logic and common sence was attempted to be introduced into to a process over run by grant sucking pigs,special interest groups, County, City, and state employees working together with an agenda to degrade infrastructure never before sighted for being dangerous. Studies and surveys were manipulated and condenced every month in attempts to misslead the public pitting them against the propery owners being completely over looked as stake holders because the county hired or for better words paid off a law firm to detirmine no one along the river owns property to the river anymore? claiming the exposed bottomlands were now owned by the county,even tho clearly deeds prove otherwise. The missleading statements and press releases heavily debated still continue today. Norbert and myself have been given proxy to speek for over 100 honest tax paying friends and families living on or near the Boardman River. I know their thoughts are with us every day, as they watch thier property values drop along with the values of the nature preserves and habbitat set aside by our forefathers to be protected forever only to be changed thru a new special assessment or referendum. The lies and underhanded things I have witness thru this process could fill a book. It’s disgusting to me to see these people creating their own scope of work at the tax payers expence to justify their existance continually lying to the people that pay their wages.

    The nature preserves were once outdoor classrooms for our youth, they are now littered with signs warning of unstable and dangerous situations suggesting even adults stay out, and rightfully so as the once beautiful Boardman River Valley is now considered as much a risk as an abandoned quarry pit and certianly resembels one. Im sorry I could go on and on about the laws rules and regulations our state and local representatives have overlooked to get this ill ventured process to were it is now and Dave thats not how democracy is supposed to works. Closed door meetings, Implementation team meeting in the garage at the DNR office the rejection of influance or any teams to study the feasibility of power production? misinformation blacklisting censorship and extreme bias attitudes toward the property owners and all those opposing their process. a process designed onlyto apes’ and outlast the damaged parties. This is not the world I was born into and it is not going to be the one I hope to leave behind. This is not how democracy works.

    This is a disgrace and a disaster in the making. Even their own engineers have warned that it will be SIX GENERATIONS before the fishery is back to what it is now, a blue ribbon trout stream and the wildlife may never return to it predisaster grandure. I will quote a DNR spokesman who said “The Boardman River is a self sustaining blue ribbon trout stream and needs no further management to maintain this status” Fast forward to todays adminastration. ” A River Born Again” what a joke…. by killing off nearly every species of fish in the ponds to allow genetically engineered Salmon and Steelhead highly evasive and contaminated frankenfish upstream to once again devistate our blue ribbon trout stream and pollute the beautiful nature preserves and riverbanks? The EPA warns against allowing these contaminated lake run fish up river and notes: this could be devistating to Eagles and otter and oppertunistic feeding animals as they come up river to spawn and die leaving the contaminates in the sand and sediment. REALLY? NO ONE WANTS THIS BUT THE PEOPLE WHO WILL BE PROSPERING FROM THE WORK THEY ARE CREATING FOR THEMSELVES. The grant sucking pigs lying to the masses. it’s got to stop………..

  2. I too was involved (and still am) in the Boardman River Dam process. To say that it wasn’t a “public process” is entirely inaccurate. I was able follow the process, ask questions via a website, contact IT members, and participate in a blog on a provided website, and read minutes of every single meetings even though I was in a hospital bed in Lansing. Once I recovered sufficiently to participate in person I have done so by attending both IT and working group meetings. I’m interested because I own property along the Boardman River and I used to canoe the river regularly. I’d guess many hundred of hours were spent by hundreds of people over the years during which the fate of the dams was considered. It was open to ANYONE and EVERYONE that wanted to participate. That’s what a public process is.

    I know there are people that disagree with outcome of the process (many of whom went into the process with the mindset that the dams should be preserved at all costs) and they now go around saying that the process wasn’t public or fair. I wonder whether they would still say that if the IT had voted to repair all the dams. My guess is that they’d all have wonderful things to say about the process and how public and fair it was.

    Yes, there were people involved in the process that went in with their minds already made up(on BOTH sides). And yes, only IT members were able to vote. So the IT members looked at the results of the process, considered the recommendations and what was best for their constituents and voted. That’s how a representative democracy is supposed to work.

    I for one appreciate all the time and energy provided by EVERYONE that has been involved in this lengthy process. They all have my sincere thanks.

  3. I was involved in the Boardman River Dams Committee and it was far from a public process. Perception Management, Delphi Technique and out and out lying were all used to achieve the state goal to remove the dams on the Boardman River. The only people who had a vote in the quote “public process” were hand picked members of the Implementation Team (IT) who represented agencies who wanted the dams removed but wanted the process of deciding to appear to represent the public will. Over 50% of respondents of every poll or survey completed by the IT wanted the dams saved and used for hydro power. This process was a waste of time and money and clearly shows that when the government wants to do something that the public doesn’t want, they go ahead with the project and say the public wanted this so we are just serving the public. Worst thing is that same public is so apathetic they just resign themselves to “what will be will be.”

  4. The Michgan DNR fishery staff has a direct order not to talk about top Snyder administration intrusion into Golden Lotus dam removal in Vanderbilt, Otsego County. Top Snyder staff are lobbying on behalf of the Golden Lotus to not complete the removal of the dam apron and bridge under the original agreement. Governor Snyder’s top staff are operating under the John Engler doctrine of protecting the polluters.

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