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Republican lawmakers seek funding to save dam in northern Michigan

Pigeon River Country State Forest, Fall 2019
Matthew Clara/MI Dept. of Natural Resources
Pigeon River Country State Forest, Fall 2019

Republican lawmakers are asking the legislature for $1.5 million dollars to save a beloved dam in Cheboygan County. The state-owned dam has not officially been slated for removal, but a lack of funding for necessary repairs leaves its future uncertain.

The Cornwall Creek Flooding Dam is considered a “high hazard” dam, meaning it poses a safety risk to nearby homes and downstream infrastructure.

The state says the Cornwall dam significantly benefits fisheries, but finding the funds to rebuild the dam has been a challenge since most dam-related funding prioritizes removal.

State Representative Cam Cavitt introduced the bill in hopes of preventing the dam’s removal. He said the $1.5 million should cover the costs of repair and future maintenance.

“We're in the minority, so we don't really have controls of the lever on spending,” Cavitt said. “We kind of have to work deals to try and get our priorities pushed through. This was ahigh priority for both Rep Borton and myself, and it’s obvious our constituents are wanting this taken care of.”

A petition to save Cornwall dam has received nearly 2,000 signatures. Supporters cite the economic, recreational, and environmental value of the impoundment to the region, which brings about $100,000 in revenue from anglers and visitors to local businesses.

A #savecornwall sign posted in a Petoskey gas station, photo taken April 6.
Teresa Homsi
A #savecornwall sign posted in a Petoskey gas station, photo taken April 6.

“Literally billions - with a ‘b’ - of dollars have gone to purchase and enhance recreational properties around the state, but the golden goose is right there at the Pigeon Forest, and the DNR hasn't been managing it properly,” Cavitt said.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said it supports the bill, and rebuilding the dam is in line with the DNR’s goals.

“If the funding was provided by the legislature, then we would be committed to working through solutions, no matter what the new geotechnical survey finds and if it increases costs beyond what's anticipated,” said Randy Claramunt, with the DNR fisheries unit.

There aremore than 60 dams owned by the fisheries division under review for social, environmental, and financial concerns. Typically, removing these dams restores fish passage and supports at-risk species, but Cornwall is an exception.

“[Cornwall] is a unique case,” Claramunt said. “The benefits of having the impoundment, from a fishery standpoint, are higher than the stream that would be there if the dam were not in place. Nine times out of 10, it’s the other way around.”

Claramunt said the department is on a short timeline and will need to act quickly. If funds aren’t allocated to save the dam, he said the state needs to be prepared for all possibilities - including removal.

Either way – removal or restoration – water levels at Cornwall will be drawn down this summer to address immediate safety concerns.

Cavitt’s bill is currently in the State House Committee on Appropriations, where it will see additional amendments.

UPDATE April 28: US Representative Jack Bergman sent a letter to the DNR requesting support to keep the Cornwall dam in place.

In the interest of transparency, the DNR is a financial supporter of WCMU.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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