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Outdated dam infrastructure and lax oversight contributed to historic Midland flooding, says expert

A red bridge flooded in Midland
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
Midland County is under a state of emergency after a dam failure led to historic flooding along the Tittabawassee River.

Two Midland County damswere breached on Tuesday after several days of heavy rainfall, leading to historic flooding along the Tittabawassee River. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has declared a state of emergency for the county, and around 10,000 residents have been evacuated from their homes. State and local officials warn that water levels in some areas could reach as high as nine feet by Wednesday evening.

Stateside talked to Kent State University hydrologist Anne Jefferson about the role that aging infrastructure and lax government oversight may have played in the catastrophic flooding.  

Parts of Edenville Dam collapsed on Tuesday night, releasing a deluge of water that then overtopped the Sanford Dam. The private owners of the Edenville Dam have received multiple citations for negligence. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commision revoked the owners’ license to sell hydroelectric power from the dam in 2018 because it was not equipped to handle major floods. Jefferson says that private dam ownership can lead to public safety issues because owners may be less accountable to the public when it comes to keeping up to date with repairs.

“There’s a different sort of cost-benefit ratio for the private dam owners, versus public entities that have to think much more broadly and holistically about the costs and benefits of maintaining the dams,” she explained. 

The Edenville and Sanford Dams are both nearly 100 years old. Jefferson says that many of these old dams are “past their original design lifetimes,” and weren’t built to last this long. The aging infrastructure faces additional stress from a changing climate.

“Our infrastructure was designed for a past climate, and the climate has changed, and the climate is continuing to change,” she explained.“And that means these more intense rainfalls, wetter conditions overall, are things that our infrastructure wasn’t designed for.”

The United States as a whole has an aging water infrastructure system, and funding for updates can be hard to come by in government budgets. But according to Jefferson, putting off paying for maintenance now means incurring a bigger bill later on.

“Ultimately the public is going to pay the cost in terms of lost lives and property damage when dams fail. And so dam safety and levee safety along rivers, these are absolutely critical public safety things, and we just have to find a way to get the maintenance and upgrades that are needed, paid for.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

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