The Michigan Department of Natural Resources will spend $2.35 million for its dam management program in 2013, the first time the department has been granted money by the Legislature to address problems of aging dams.
The program will focus on dam removals and maintenance. Individuals, nonprofit organizations, and state and local government agencies would be eligible for grants.
Michigan has more than 2,600 dams. More than 90 percent of them will reach or exceed their designed life by 2020, according to the department.
Chris Freiburger, coordinator of the program, said many were built since the 1830s for purposes such as power generation and millponds.
“Chunks of dams lacked regular maintenance because they don’t serve an economic purpose any more,” Freiburger said. “That would bring about safety and environment concerns such as water leaking.”
Three hundred dams were identified by the Department of Environment Quality at the highest level of potential failure, which could cause severe property damage and death.
Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited in DeWitt, said many dams could have catastrophic failures.
“Nearly all dams were built of earth, rocks and wood, and they were not concrete,” he said. “They would be penetrated by time.”
In 2003, the Silver Lake dam on the Dead River near Marquette failed, releasing flood water and causing an evacuation
of 1,800 nearby residents, and $100 million in damages and other economic losses.
Another impact of aging dams is negative influence on natural resources.
“A river system is defined as a function of flowing nature of water,” Burroughs said.
Burroughs said that the benefits dams contribute resulted in the public’s ignorance about potential dangers. And it was not until the 1960s that scientists started studying what impacts dams have for rivers.
A study by the Michigan Public Sector Consultants in 2007 found that potential consequences included dam failure, changed to a river’s ecosystem and blocked fish passage.
Joanne Barnard, executive director for the Barry Conservation District, said her community had removed two dams in the past, the National Dam of Thornapple and the Morgan Dam in Maple Hill.
“The Thornapple dam couldn’t be utilized for any purpose and it was in bad shape,” she said. “ By removing that, we can reconnect the river and create a fish path in the river.”
She said that the community must agree to remove dams but lack of funding is a difficulty.
The deadline for grant applications is Dec. 1.