With dam removal on hold, Traverse City residents face a hefty repair tab
Traverse City officials already weathered disappointment when a judge ruled that the city can’t proceed as planned with a $19.3 million replacement of the city’s Union Street Dam.
Now, a new inspection report has detailed deficiencies at the dam that could cost city taxpayers millions to address.
City officials are citing that report as they urge the Michigan Court of Appeals to swiftly reconsider a lower-court decision that blocked the so-called FishPass project that would have replaced the aging dam virtually free-of-cost to city taxpayers.
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“This is a ticking time bomb,” said Marc Gaden, spokesperson for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, a U.S-Canadian fishery management entity that is leading the project and is a party to the lawsuit. “The city needs to know, one way or another, how to proceed.”
FishPass is the capstone to a decades-long effort to restore fish habitat on the Boardman River, which flows through Traverse City. After three dam removals upstream, city leaders had planned to replace the last remaining dam on the Boardman — an old mill dam in downtown Traverse City — with a new barrier.
That barrier would include a research facility where scientists would test technology designed to allow some fish species to pass upstream beyond the dam, while locking others downstream.
But the long-planned project hit a major roadblock in the spring, when a group of area residents sued the city just before crews were set to break ground.
Rick Buckhalter, who has led the charge against FishPass, scored a victory in April, when a state trial court judge agreed with his argument that the project amounted to an illegal disposal of city parkland that the city can’t authorize without voters’ consent.
Buckhalter and others oppose the project in part because designs call for changes to a calm, shaded park surrounding the dam. The changes include a new amphitheater and kayak launch, along with a research building where scientists would work. Those changes, Buckhalter argued in a March interview with Bridge, would “eviscerate” the park’s quiet vibe.
City lawyers are appealing that decision. In a motion submitted to the court Thursday, they argue the new inspection details are grounds for the court to move more quickly.
That inspection, summarized in a report sent to city officials on June 18, found that the Traverse City dam is in rougher shape than previously thought. Luke Trumble, who supervises the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s dam safety unit, downgraded the dam to “fair-to-poor” condition, and recommended replacing or repairing the structure. Barring outright replacement, Trumble’s report detailed multiple needed repairs to keep the dam safe.
The report comes amid renewed scrutiny of Michigan’s aging dams and renewed effort to keep them safe, after two mid-Michigan dams near Midland failed last year following decades of unaddressed safety issues.
Trumble acknowledged to Bridge Michigan on Monday that state officials aren’t concerned the Traverse City could imminently fail, but “we are at the point where we need to look at it more closely.”
Noting that the new rating is the same rating applied to the mid-Michigan dams before their failure last year, city lawyers described the needed repairs as “urgent” and said the new inspection report “reinforces City officials’ worst fears about the Union Street Dam.”
The dam is listed as high hazard because if it were to fail people downstream could die.
Gaden, of the fishery commission, called Buckhalter’s lawsuit a threat to a necessary dam replacement project during a time when state officials are struggling to find money to replace other decrepit dams across the state.
“If Midland taught us anything,” Gaden said, “it’s that you have to take these threats of aging dams seriously.”
Buckhalter called the city’s sky-is-falling narrative an exaggeration. Many of the issues flagged in last week’s report were also present during previous inspections, he noted, and the dam poses no imminent danger.
“This is a chicken little story, the way I look at it,” Buckhalter said.
Trumble said the problems at the dam, which range from water seeping through through its embankment to erosion along its slopes, are concerning enough that state officials want Traverse City leaders to figure out how they’ll address them if the court case over FishPass is not resolved this year.
Ultimately, Trumble said, the dam likely needs a full overhaul or replacement. Originally built 154 years ago (with upgrades in the 1950s and 60s), it has far outlived its design life span.
Replacement, he estimated, could cost $5 million to $10 million.
While they wait for judges to decide whether they’ll expedite a hearing on the FishPass lawsuit in light of the report’s findings, elected members of the Traverse City Commission will consider how to deal with the safety concerns during a study session Monday night.
As it stands, City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht said, the city is legally barred from taking action: The trial court ruling that stopped FishPass development also prohibits the construction work that would be necessary to fix the issues at the dam, she said.
Jay Zelenock, a lawyer representing Buckhalter, said he will file documents Monday contesting the city’s request to speed up the appeals court process.
“They want the public to believe there’s something to be terrified about, and then that might sort of sway people’s votes,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to sway the court of appeals.”
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