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Issues Of The Environment: Dam Safety In Michigan And Washtenaw County

Sep 30, 2020

Washtenaw County water resources commissioner Evan Pratt
Credit Washtenaw County / washtenaw.org

Maintaining dams became part of the national conversation again when two collapsed in mid-Michigan this year and caused severe flooding.  The state of Michigan has now established a new commission on dam safety, and Washtenaw County's water resources commissioner has been appointed as an inaugural member.  Evan Pratt discussed his new role and the local and statewide implications with WEMU's David Fair on this week's "Issues of the Environment."


Overview

  • The failure of the Edenville dam in Midland, Michigan in May 2020 highlights the need for additional regulatory oversight of dams to keep the public safe.  The newly formed MI Dam Safety Task Force will evaluate the statutory structure, budget, and program design of the Water Resources Division Dam Safety Program, the adequacy of Michigan’s dam safety standards, and the level of investment needed in Michigan’s dam infrastructure.

 

  • Washtenaw County's Water Resources Commissioner, Evan Pratt, was appointed to this committee, and he will be working toward the development of a report to Michigan Governor Whitmer that underscores the weaknesses in the current Michigan dam safety regulations. 

 

  • With over 2500 dams in Michigan, many of which are aging and/or in subpar condition, developing a better system to prevent failure before it happens is a matter of public safety.

 

  • Although Ann Arbor's four city-owned dams are each over a century old, the city spends hundreds of thousands of dollars keeping them maintained.  These dams are regulated at the state and federal level, and they are considered safe. 

 

  • Dams along the Huron River are disruptive to aquatic wildlife and their natural habitats, and Ypsilanti city council has chosen to remove the Peninsular Park Dam when funds become available.  The dams in Ann Arbor (and several elsewhere in Washtenaw County) provide recreational opportunities, and the city and county have chosen to maintain them for the foreseeable future.

Michigan Dam Safety Task Force

The MI Dam Safety Task Force will evaluate the statutory structure, budget, and program design of the Water Resources Division Dam Safety Program, the adequacy of Michigan’s dam safety standards, and the level of investment needed in Michigan’s dam infrastructure.  Its work will culminate in a report to Governor Whitmer and the legislature summarizing its findings and recommending regulatory, financial, and programmatic improvements to help ensure Michigan dams are appropriately maintained, operated, and overseen to protect Michigan residents and aquatic resources.  (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.michigan.gov/egle/0,9429,7-135-3306_88771_102319---,00.html)

Dam Safety Overview

Dams in Michigan are regulated by Part 307, Inland Lake Levels, and Part 315, Dam Safety, of The Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, as amended.  There are 2,500 dams in the state, 813 of which are regulated by Part 315, and 235 are regulated by Part 307.  Dams are regulated by Part 315 when they are over 6 feet in height and over 5 acres are impounded during the design flood.  Dams are regulated by Part 307 when a circuit court issues an order establishing the level at which the lake is to be maintained.  There are also 99 hydroelectric dams in Michigan that are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under the Federal Power Act.

Permits are required for the construction, enlargement, repair, alteration, removal, abandonment and reconstruction of state regulated dams. Inspection reports are required every three to five years for state regulated dams based on their hazard potential rating.

The Dam Safety Program is responsible for ensuring the safety of Michigan's state regulated dams.  These dams, owned by both public and private entities, are located throughout the state.  The program focuses on ensuring that dams are properly constructed, inspected and maintained, and that the owners have adequately prepared for potential emergencies.

Program staff performs a variety of duties, many of which are statutorily required, including:

  • Inspection of state owned dams and dams owned by local units of government, upon their request.
       
  • Review the adequacy of dam construction or reconstruction plans.
       
  • Review various safety related reports, including inspection reports, prepared by professional engineers and submitted by private or municipal dam owners.
       
  • Perform compliance activities as necessary to enforce the law. 
       
  • Respond to dam safety emergencies. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.michigan.gov/egle/0,9429,7-135-3313_3684_3723-9515--,00.html)
       

EGLE names Michigan Dam Safety Task Force members; first meeting was Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020

The MI Dam Safety Task Force will evaluate the statutory structure, budget, and program design of the Water Resources Division Dam Safety Program, the adequacy of Michigan’s dam safety standards, and the level of investment needed in Michigan’s dam infrastructure.  Its work will culminate in a report to Governor Whitmer and the legislature summarizing its findings and recommending regulatory, financial, and programmatic improvements to help ensure Michigan dams are appropriately maintained, operated, and overseen to protect Michigan residents and aquatic resources.  (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.michigan.gov/egle/0,9429,7-135-3306_88771_102319---,00.html)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu