Four Lakes Task Force moves forward

Sanford Lake after the dam failures.

GLADWIN COUNTY – Last week the Four Lakes Task Force (FLTF) released their updated plan for the future of the four lakes and the dams under their authority. The task force is the Delegated Authority for Gladwin and Midland counties under Part 307 of the Michigan Natural Resources and Protection Act. As such, they have developed a plan to stabilize and rebuild the infrastructure necessary to maintain the four lakes (Secord, Smallwood, Wixom and Sanford). Their plan is outlined on their website and FLTF President David Kepler appeared on a webcast sponsored by the Mackinaw Center to discuss it.

The four dams, along with 100’s of others were built in the 20th century to generate power. Most of these dams were built through private investments and operated as private entities. The four dams in question were not unusual in this respect. Most of these types of dams were designed solely for this purpose. They were not designed to mitigate floods. Early on, this was a viable business model. The profits generated were enough to ensure reinvestment in the structures.

Over time the dam operators sold the property along the water. The economic and environmental impact of which exceeded that of power generation. Kepler mentioned that the situation at Edenville was one in which the private operator didn’t have enough revenue to make the necessary improvements to ensure safe operation. 

An investigation into the dam failure is currently underway. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Division of Dam Safety and Inspection ordered Boyce Hydro to draw down the remaining waters on Secord, Smallwood and Sanford Lakes and form an independent forensics team to focus on the three dams impounding the above lakes. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has been designated by the State of Michigan to work with FERC on the Edenville Dam.

Many people have expressed concern that Boyce, FERC and the State of Michigan are in charge of the inspection process. It’s sort of like the old idiom of the “fox guarding the hen house.” While no one is questioning the integrity of those in charge of the inspection team an independent agency would provide an added level of assurance moving forward. The FLTF would prefer that an organization such as the Association of State Dam Safety Officials head the investigation.

 “Our biggest concern from a community point of view is that these reports take six months to two years. For us to get clarity as to where we need to go as a community for investment we need to make sure that the report comes out very clean because we can’t do any repairs or major changes to the systems until that report comes out,” said Kepler on the Mackinaw Center webcast. “What we want to do is get clarity so we can move forward and make sure that when the report comes out there is not controversy around it. That’s our big challenge right now.”

While the investigation is taking place, the FLTF is moving forward on several fronts. “The first thing we need to do is gain control of the property,” said Kepler. 

He reiterated that the owner couldn’t afford the repairs before the failure so it’s really not a viable situation for a private owner now. The condition of the property and liability attached make it unworkable under private ownership. The FLTF plans to gain control of the properties through condemnation and is making plans to manage them. Both counties (Gladwin and Midland) have approved the condemnation of the land necessary to maintain the legal lake levels.

Kepler believes that the dams will be rebuilt, but the cost will be high. “Our big focus is to stabilize the lake bottoms and make sure that is addressed. We have to also address the funding aspects. The previous model to have the home owners fund the project through a special assessment district is kind of broken.” The first step along with condemnation and stabilization includes controlling erosion and removal of debris. The initial estimate for this phase is in the $40 million dollar range. The Michigan Department of Transportation recently awarded a $1.2 million contract to Fisher Contracting of Midland to remove debris at the M-30 bridge. Work was to begin on June 29 and be completed by July 22.

Downstream flooding will always be a concern for Midland and to a lesser extent, Saginaw. The Tittabawassee River is not the only source of floodwaters in the Tri City area so while the new dams cannot prevent all flooding they should be able to help. A comprehensive Flood Study needs to be done to understand how the new dams can play a role. The FLTF reviewed the previous studies and is pushing for the new study that takes into account the entire basin.

The whole process will take time and will be dependent upon the completion of the forensic investigation. Dam consultants for the FLTF estimate that the design costs for repair and restoration will be in the $40 to $50 million range. They also estimate that it will take from three to six years. Secord and Smallwood suffered the least amount of damage leading to a three-year projection for Smallwood and four years for Secord. The current projections for Sanford and Edenville are five and six years respectively. 

There is little doubt about the value to the lakes to the mid Michigan area. With $800 million in home value and over 6,000 residents they are crucial to the economic health of Gladwin and Midland counties. The four lakes have been around so long they are an integral part of the ecosystem. It would be hard to make an argument to the contrary. As Kepler said in the webcast, “there is no reason that you can’t build a dam to withstand these floods. The dams failed at a point where they shouldn’t have based on what they were designed to do.” New designs and construction methods should be able to prevent this in the future. 

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