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Residents living around lake that vanished after dam failure say restoration the only option

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

In the weeks since the Edenville Dam failed, and floodedMidland, the focus has been on why it failed.

But the people who live upstream from the dam also want to know when, or if, they’ll get their lake back.  

On a stormy morning last week, Robert Beltz stands on the green manicured lawn behind his beautiful two story home on Wixom Lake. The lawn extends to what used to be the water line.

“If you walk down toward the sea wall, and look down here, it looks like a desert,” Beltz said.

When the Edenville Dam failed on May 19, water rushed through the breach, draining much of Wixom Lake.  

The lake is really a reservoir created in the 1920’s after a hydro-electric dam was built at the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Tobacco Rivers. It would take years to restore Wixom Lake.

Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hedged when asked about rebuilding the dam.

“I’m inclined to say ‘yes’ but I think there is a lot more information that I need to have to give you the absolute certainty of what next steps look like. But the end goal is, of course, is to restore this community as well as we can to the greatness it was prior to this event,” Whitmer told reporters.

Credit steve carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy says an  investigation into the dam failure will determine “where we go with next steps in relation to whether or not to rebuild.”

Another option is to allow the rivers to return to their pre-1920 paths.

“There’s really no better way to bring a river back to life than removing a dam,” says Brian Graber, the senior director of river restoration for American Rivers, whose mission is to restore damaged rivers.

Graber says dams should be evaluated for public safety and ecological issues, as well as economic and recreational benefits.

“Rivers are volatile. And with climate change they are even more volatile,” Graber said. “We really need to give rivers the space so that they can flood safely without expecting the infrastructure is going to stop that flooding.”

The Edenville Dam long ago went from producing electric power to powering Gladwin County’s economy.

Scott Govitz is the associate vice president of workforce and economic development at Mid-Michigan College. Govitz says tourism dollars and homes on the lake make up a significant part of the county’s sales and property tax base.

“We have a county that is so reliant upon tourism and these lakes and streams...that are jewels...that we must repair this and get back on our feet,” Govitz said. “The worst case scenario could be bankruptcies of magnitudes that we haven’t seen before.”

County officials are still assessing the economic impact of the dam failure and resulting flood. They are very concerned about the long-term hit of not having Wixom Lake.

At this point, it’s unclear how much it would cost to repair or replace the broken dam or who would pay. 

For Wixom Lake homeowners like Robert Beltz, the suggestion that the dam might not get rebuilt is unthinkable.

“You’d see 10,000 people around this lake, they’d all be out with pitchforks and torches,” Beltz said. “None of them want to see the lake to disappear and I do not see that as an option.”

But the new view of Wixom Lake this summer will likely be the same for many years to come, nice homes overlooking mud flats with water trickling through a broken dam. 

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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