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Public aims to raise $200K by June to restore Cornwall dam

Cornwall impoundment
Curtis Goldsborough
Cornwall impoundment

The future of a beloved dam in Cheboygan County looks a little more certain, thanks to new state funding. A public campaign aims to cover the remaining balance to preserve Cornwall Creek Flooding.

Last year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said it would take a "miracle" to save the Cornwall Flooding Dam in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

But the state has now dug up $1.3 million, and the public aims to raise the final $200,000 needed to restore the "high-hazard" dam.

More than a year after the DNR announced its plans to seek funding to remove the dam, Curtis Goldsborough, an organizer with the group "Save Cornwall," said he now sees a "light at the end of the tunnel."

"There's no doubt in my mind that had we not stepped in and stepped up and made our voices heard — the flooding would be drawn down and the DNR probably would have already secured funding to remove the dam," Goldsborough said.

The total cost of the project is still an estimate and subject to change after bids are put out. But it's been a years-long struggle to fund dam repairs after Cornwall was deemed in "poor" condition in 2019, according to Tim Cwalinski.

"It's hard to find funding for dam renovation in the world these days," said Cwalinski, a DNR fisheries unit supervisor in Gaylord. "There's a lot more money out there for dam removals, but this, we thought, was a unique case."

Rick Brewer

In a WCMU report last spring, a DNR spokesperson explained that dam removal typically restores fish passage and supports at risk-species. Cornwall is seen as an exception since it upholds a warmwater system and a thriving bluegill fishery, as well as tiger muskie population.

Unlike the majority of dams on the docket for removal, the Cornwall impoundment doesn't interfere with coldwater species like trout.

“The benefits of having the [Cornwall] impoundment, from a fishery standpoint, are higher than the stream that would be there if the dam were not in place," DNR fisheries chief, Randy Claramunt told WCMU last April. "Nine times out of 10, it’s the other way around.”

Cwalinksi said the DNR cobbled together $1.3 million from a variety of sources.

More than half ($750,000) of the DNR's 2024 budget for dams is going to Cornwall. Another $210,000 was scraped from a 2019 state supplemental fund and $50,000 stems from a DNR aquatic habitat grant. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission also pledged $350,000 to support the restoration.

Despite "scratching and clawing" to find funds to renovate the dam, Cwalinski said the effort doesn't end there.

"We're still responsible for costs associated with that dam for the next [few] decades and then eventually, 50-70 years from now, when it fails," Cwalinski said. "Nobody, 57 years ago, when they built [Cornwall], put money away for this date right now."

With the public fundraiser underway, Goldsborough said he's hopeful the dam can be rebuilt this fall.

"We were light-years away 12 months ago, staring at a giant hurdle that we didn't really know how to go about," Goldsborough said. "Fast forward to today and we're close to finish line — we can see it, and we just need one final push to get it done."

The state is scheduled to draw down water levels at Cornwall this spring, which would prep the dam for further action.

The fundraiser is coordinated through Huron Pines, which describes Cornwall Creek Flooding as a place that has, "provided generations of outdoor enthusiasts a pristine wilderness experience that can't be found anywhere else in the state."

The Michigan 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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