Rebecca Esselman is executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council
Without action to remove obsolete dams and investment to repair the few that still serve a practical function, dangerous situations like what happened in Midland will become common. In Michigan, the combination of aging dams and increasing flood risk due to climate change is a recipe for disaster. This is not a future problem. This is a clear and present danger.
Michigan is already experiencing stronger, more frequent storms than we did in the 20th century. In the past, the storm that led to the Midland dam failures would have occurred, on average, once every 25 to 50. But damaging storms like this one are more common across the Midwest. As climate change continues to drive increasingly energetic weather, we will see these severe downpours and flooding events on a much more frequent basis. In many cases, dams across Michigan will be overwhelmed. Their obsolete designs meant to withstand past conditions are quickly becoming inadequate for the current and future conditions.
There are nearly 2,600 known dams in Michigan. Many are privately owned. The majority no longer serve their original purpose. Fewer than 110 generate electricity, and more than 90 percent have exceeded their intended lifespan. More than 170 are classified as “high hazard,” meaning failure would likely result in loss of life. Dams are not permanent. They are expensive and they require long-term commitment from owners. In the 2018 Michigan’s Infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned Michigan’s dams a C- grade, citing more than $225 million necessary to address the state’s aging dams.
As dams age, they become increasingly likely to fail. As the failures of Edenville and Sanford dams on the Tittabawassee River have tragically shown us, that can lead to catastrophic flooding with significant economic losses for the community and individuals. Flood waters can rapidly spread toxic chemicals either trapped behind dams or in the areas flooded when they break. The impacts of these failures on the Tittabawassee River ecosystem and Saginaw Bay are currently unknown, but they will certainly play out for decades.
Across the country, experts understand that removing dams we no longer need is the best way to keep people safe, improve water quality, restore critical wildlife habitat, and eliminate ongoing costs of dam maintenance and repair. There is nothing that impacts a river ecosystem more than a dam, and no faster, better, or cost-effective way to restore a river than to remove a dam. In the face of climate change, dam removal and smart floodplain management can dramatically reduce a community’s vulnerability to flooding.
Over many years, the Huron River Watershed Council has been working to understand the dams in our watershed. We have supported our river communities as they pursued options for their own dams. Time and again, dam owners demonstrate interest in potential removal of their dams, yet they lack the funds needed to pay for even the pre-removal feasibility studies. Consequently, inaction has been the status quo.
The pandemic has caused much of the already limited funding for dam repair and removal to be paused as federal and state agencies reassess budgets. On the Huron River, for example, Ypsilanti is currently seeking state funding for the removal of the “high hazard” Peninsular Paper Dam. The dam failures that have caused catastrophic flooding in Midland should serve as a reminder for legislators and agency leaders that a solution for Michigan’s aging dams cannot wait and if we move swiftly and get it right, this work can aid in the economic recovery of our state.
In 2008, my hometown of Dexter removed the Mill Creek Dam. This sparked a revitalization that is now Mill Creek Park, a centerpiece of the town. The river is free flowing, residents and visitors have a beautiful amenity and the city no longer has a liability on their hands. While the work ahead is significant, the time is now to implement an aggressive agenda to remove or fix Michigan’s dams.