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Experts: Michigan needs to spend more on dam safety

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

A new reportsays Michigan should invest more money and hire more staff in its dam safety office.

Thefailure of two dams back in May and the resulting record flooding along the Tittabawassee River led the state to commission an analysis of Michigan’s dam safety program. The analysis was made by experts from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO).

Bill Bingham is a dam safety consultant who is part of the team that reviewed Michigan’s program. He says the group found the state dam safety office staff was doing its best, but lacked key tools.

“Michigan has not invested in the safety of its dams for many decades, regardless of who owns those dams,” says Bingham. “We found that rigorous enforcement is seldom used for dam safety violations.  There seems to be a minimal enforcement culture that’s grown in Michigan.”

The dam safety experts’ report includes more than a dozen recommendations, including increasing the number of state dam safety employees, creating a revolving fund for dam repairs, and increasing inspections of high hazard dams. 

The report cited The ASCE 2018 Report Card for Michigan’s Infrastructure and the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report, which both cited underinvestment in dam maintenance. The Infrastructure Commission Report estimated that Michigan needed $227 million in state funding over 20 years to support maintenance and removal of dams.

“The ASDSO report acknowledges the decades of underinvestment in infrastructure in Michigan, which includes many dams that, if they failed, would put downstream residents’ lives in jeopardy,” says Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

The report’s recommendations will be considered by the Michigan Dam Safety Task Force created by the governor following May’s dam failures.

The causes of the May 19 failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams are under review. The company that owns the dams filed for bankruptcy protection amid a slew of lawsuits seeking damages.

The May floods caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.  Flood waters damaged thousands of homes and businesses, as well as washed away roads and bridges in Gladwin, Midland and other parts of mid-Michigan. 

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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.