Restoring the lakes

Gladwin County

When bi-partisan legislation to fund dam safety measures was announced back in May we began to see a glimmer of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Cliché? Yes, but also substantive relief for those who have lived through the nightmare that was 2020. Lawmakers proposed spending $500 million to repair and replace the dams along the Tittabawassee River system in Gladwin and Midland counties along with putting measures in place to ensure dam safety statewide.

This legislation was introduced in both the Michigan House and Senate and mentions the Four Lakes Task Force and each of the four dams by name – Secord, Smallwood, Wixom, and Sanford. It will also provide funds for other dams located in this state.

The bills are in committee and will likely change before they become law, but they are a step in the right direction for Michigan’s aging dams. According to a statement from House SpeakerJason Wentworth, “It is well past time we take the lessons we learned from these failures and turn them into solutions that will keep all of us safe for years to come. Every family in our community, including mine, is going to sleep better at night once we actually start fixing up these aging dams.”

The plan creates four dedicated funds in the state budget with the following priorities:

- One grant program for repairs identified by the Four Lakes Task Force and others around the state.

- One fund to focus on repairs to already-identified high-risk dams.

- An emergency fund for emergency response activities when disaster strikes.

- Another grant program focused on drawing down federal match dollars for aging dam rehab or removal statewide.

Policy reforms are also part of the plan. Changes include requiring dam owners to maintain strong safety and maintenance records along with adequate financing to handle potential problems. The Four Lakes Task Force (FLTF) has been a major force in prodding the legislature to tackle the dam issue. Several recommendations from their report have found their way into the proposed legislation.

The FLTF is the delegated authority appointed by Gladwin and Midland Counties to coordinate all federal and state funding in connection with the recovery and restoration of Secord, Smallwood, Wixom and Sanford Lakes.

Multiple delegated authorities exist within the county including the Gladwin Transit Authority, Mike Rajt for Wiggins Lake and the Gladwin County Drain Commission for Sugar Springs. The four lakes, Secord, Smallwood, Wixon and Sanford along with those in Sugar Springs, Lancer and Lancelot, and Wiggins Lake all have Part 307 orders, which require the maintenance of “legal lake levels.” It is the role of the delegated authority to maintain those levels which can include dispersing the funds collected for that purpose through a special assessment district.

If there is any “silver lining” to be found in the current situation it is that the people of the four lakes are fortunate to have an organization such as the Four Lakes Task Force representing them. The collection of talent/expertise found within the group has moved the restoration process forward at a remarkable rate. In a little over a year since the dam failures (Edenville and Sanford) and the forced draw downs (Secord and Smallwood) the task force has developed a 108-page plan for the renovation and reconstruction of the dams. 

While developing the plan the FLTF took advantage of all the expertise that was available including consulting with the US Army Corps of Engineers. Based on the Corps criteria it was determined that the Four Lakes were not eligible for their support. If the Corp invests in a dam its cost must be offset the cost of future property loss. With Corps help unlikely the FLTF turned to other avenues for funding. 

To date, the FLTF has secured over $52 Million in funding with $5 Million in private donations.They have worked with the legislature to possibly finance those repairs and if that falls through, they have secured alternative funding. The United States Department of Agriculture will provide low interest loans through their Rural Development Program in the worst-case scenario. 

The worst-case scenario would be one in which the property owners in the Four Lakes Special Assessment District (SAD) willhave to foot the entire cost for the rebuilding and restoration of the dams. Engineering studies indicate that even the two dams that did not fail require significant upgrades to insure their safe operation going forward. The current cost estimates for all four dams are; Secord $25,136,000, Smallwood $17,939,000, Edenville $120973,000, Sanford $51,200,000 for a total of $215,248,000. The political capital possessed by the FLTF leadershiphas enabled them to open a pathway for possible state funding. If that does not come to fruition federal loan assistance has been lined up. 

In a survey of property owners within the Special Assessment District (SAD) conducted for the Task Force it was clear that respondents were in favor of restoring the lakes, eighty-eight percent believed that the dams should be rebuilt or restored. Understandingly, lake front property owners were the most in favor of rebuilding the dams while 50 percent of those that responded indicated that they would consider selling their property if the lakes did not return. Currently property values are holding in Secord and Billings Townships. Both supervisors, Joel Vernier in Secord and Tim Mester in Billings told me that their has not been a significant drop in value with most properties selling at or above assessed value. 

Special assessment estimates for lake front property owners assuming that there will be no further funding from the federal and state government are high and vary by lake from a low of $11,353 on Secord to a high of $41,159 on Wixom. These estimates include Capital Improvements, maintenance and operations. The bills being considered by the Michigan Legislature could significantly lessen the assessment if approved. As much as $225 million may be allocated to this process covering the majority of the costs of restoring the lakes leaving property owners with the annualcost of maintenance and operations. 

The Restoration Plan developed by the FLTF presents an aggressive timeline that calls for water in Secord and Smallwood Lakes by 2024 with Sanford to follow in 2025 and Wixom in 2026. Funding is the critical factor because every step from hydraulic modeling, design, permitting and construction requires funds. If a source of outside fundingis not secured the assessment through the SAD will need to begin. This will provide the funds necessary to keep the work moving forward and show the state legislature that property owners are serious about participating in the process. Nothing happens without a source of funds. 

After a year the future of the four lakes appears more certain. A plan is in place and funding is on the horizon, but there are still risks to be managed. Misinformation maybe the greatest risk, with the state legislature taking dam safety seriously it is important that individuals have as much good information as possible. Read the FLTF plan, look at the bills being introduced and critically think aboutthe sound bites on social media. The future of the lakes and economic health of Gladwin County may depend on it. 

To make your voice heard check out for ideas. With all Four Lake Associations in support, the mission is simple – to RestoreTheLakes.  As this situation is fluid, look to this website weekly for updates to make your opinion heard.

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