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Task force says Michigan's dams face “grave situation” without significant investment

steve carmody
Michigan Radio

A new report says the state of Michigan has a lot to do to reduce the risk of future dam failures.

Last May, heavy rains contributed to the failure of two dams in Gladwin and Midland counties.  The dam failures contributed to a 500-year flood event which caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.  More than 10,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes.   The area is still recovering.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Dam Safety Task Force after theEdenville and Sanford dam failures. For the past five months, the 19-member task force has been delving into what’s not working in how Michigan regulates dams. 

Thursday, the panel delivered its final report on what needs to happen now for Michigan’s more than 2,500 dams, of which approximately 1,100 are currently regulated by the state.   

The report’s 86 recommendations fall into 8 categories:

  • Funding for Dam Maintenance, Repair, and Removal: Develop a revolving loan and grant program to provide financing for maintenance that prioritizes risk reduction.
  • Legislation and Authority: Revise and adopt laws and rules to clarify responsibilities and roles of owners and the engineers they hire, state agency personnel and federal entities; address land-use issues; raise public awareness and ensure owner accountability. Also, better communications and transparency is needed for sharing relevant dam information between the state and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
  • Improving Dam Safety: Require owners to meet their responsibilities through licensing, maintaining adequate financial security and setting aside sufficient funds for maintenance and ultimate removal of the dam. Also recommends requiring owners of high and significant hazard dams to have periodic independent comprehensive reviews by a qualified team.
  • Compliance and Enforcement: Use state Dam Safety Program (DSP) resources efficiently through prioritizing portfolio-wide compliance and enforcement, and updating EGLE violation management policies.
  • Emergency Response: Develop robust and integrated Emergency Action Plan (EAP) to address hazard emergencies.
  • Program Management, Funding, and Budgeting: Suggests a proactive, risk-based approach by EGLE and DSP to manage and inventory the more than 1,500 dams the state regulates.
  • Safety and Security at Dams: Develop and implement EGLE programs related to security, public safety and public awareness, such as public outreach and education initiatives, signage templates and enhanced public online interactive mapping tools.
  • Outreach and Awareness: Schedule safety awareness seminars for internal and external stakeholders to develop a dam safety culture in Michigan. Target audiences would be state agency personnel, county officials, dam owners, floodplain managers and residents, legislators, consulting firms and tribal leaders.

"Aging dams, just like all infrastructure throughout Michigan, suffer from a lack of consistent investment, which must be addressed if we want to avoid future tragedies,” says Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and a task force member.
The report finds the state is facing a “grave situation” with many dams in need of significant investment.

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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.
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