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Health, Science and Environment

Some Michigan experts call for increased dam removal following the collapse of Edenville dam

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Experts say they hope the collapse of the Edenville dam that led to widespread flooding across mid-Michigan counties will push investment in aging dam infrastructure.

According to a state database, there are roughly 2,500 dams across Michigan. The state oversees more than 1,000 of those dams, and there is federal oversight of just 99 hydroelectric dams across the state. There are only three state regulators assigned to overseeing state dams.

According to an Army Corps of Engineers database, state dams are on average 74-years old, which means many are past the age they should be retired. And, according to the Corps, over three hundred of those dams pose either a “high” or “significant” hazard potential if they were to be breached, meaning they pose a danger to life and property.

Laura Rubin, Director of the Healing our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said whether privately or publicly-owned, dam infrastructure is expensive to upkeep.

“To provide maintenance costs these maintenance costs are half a million dollars. They are really large maintenance costs.”

Rubin said she believes the cost of upkeep is just too much and in many instances, efforts should be made to remove compromised dams.

“From my opinion there needs to be a greater movement to remove these obsolete and aging dams.”

Anecdotally, Rubin said dam removal is comparable to dam upkeep in terms of costs. But, she said, it doesn’t require the long term upkeep.

“It depends on the size of the dam. Your average dam is going to be from about $300,000 to a couple million.”

Rubin said she doesn’t have good numbers on how many dams are privately or publicly owned. But, she said, while Edenville was privately owned, many at-risk dams are owned publicly.

“They don’t have the resources to keep these dams up either. I don’t think it’s only a question that private owners don’t pay up. I’m aware of dozens of local municipalities that own dams that are behind in their maintenance. The DEQ staff keeps writing letters you know you need to correct this maintenance by this date, you need to submit this plan by this date.”

Dam maintenance, she said, is just one of those things that municipalities feel doesn’t need to be addressed immediately.

“When you’re looking at providing clean water, police, and fire safety and you look at a dam, people think ‘oh that can wait’.”

But, Rubin said, a better regulatory structure is also important.

There are other concerns around aging dam infrastructure. Some experts warn that climate change is likely to increase the stresses on already old or out of date infrastructure.

Dick Norton, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan, pointed out that in Midland the flood was dubbed a “once in 500 years” type flood.

“I’ve heard folks saying the 500-year storm is hitting multiple times over the course of a couple of years. It’s not a 500-year storm anymore. It’s becoming more like the 50-year storm. We should probably get away from using that terminology altogether.”

The problem with an increase in storms and flooding, according to Norton, is that state infrastructure isn’t built to deal with it.

“We didn’t design our infrastructure to handle those kinds of storm events. That wasn’t the norm when they were built. We didn’t design them and aren’t maintaining them to handle the kind of storms we have coming our way.”

That raises important questions for Norton about where humans should think about building cities and communities in the future.

“The deeper question this is pointing out is that as mother nature is changing dramatically in large systematic ways it is going to force us to think about how we live with nature and how much we can expect to shape nature to do what we want it to. Those are deeper philosophical questions.”