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Those Darn Dams

April 4, 2007

It seems that everywhere you look these days there is discussion in the media and conservation circles regarding dams. The recent failure of dams on the Dead River near Marquette has fueled discussions regarding flood events and dam safety. In the Manistee watershed alone, there are 63 known dams, some in severe disrepair. The issue of what to do with aging, outdated, and often failing dam structures is the topic of much discussion among conservationists, environmentalists, and resource managers alike. But before debating the pros and cons of dams, lets review some facts about dams in Michigan and the regulations that guide their operation and maintenance.

According to Michigan Department of Environmental Quality records, Michigan has over 2500 dams, fewer than 100 of which are used to generate electricity. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC regulates dams that are used to generate hydropower. FERC requires those dams be licensed, maintained, and operated according to federally mandated guidelines, regardless of ownership and location. Of the remaining 2400, 1048 are regulated by the State of Michigan under parts 307 (Inland Lake Levels) and 315 (Dam Safety) of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act of 1994. The rest, approximately 1250, do not require regular inspections by the state because of their size (impoundment size less than five acres and head height less than six feet). So, we know there are at least 1250 dams scattered throughout Michigan that are mostly privately owned and operated, and will some day require their owners to spend money on maintenance or removal. If nothing is done with these structures, eventually they will all fail. It is important to note that alterations to dams not regulated by parts 307 or 315, including their removal, would likely still require a permit from MDEQ.

So, back to our original issue. What do we do with these structures as they age, become liabilities, and require attention? What happens when a dam that generates hydropower costs more to maintain than it produces in power revenues? These are questions being debated throughout the country as many dams currently in service have already exceeded their design life, and the answers are rarely easy.

When considering what to do with an aging dam, careful thought must be given to several key questions. What purpose does the dam serve? Are there structural issues and liabilities associated with keeping the dam in place? Is removal a viable option? What permits might be required for repairs or removal? What social issues need to be considered? Should a professional engineering firm be hired? Is there funding available to help? Obviously, the answers to these questions are different for every structure, and each dam needs to be considered individually.

Presently, CRA is involved in several different projects involving dams in at least three different watersheds. Some are relatively straightforward, some less so. A careful analysis of owner objectives and related environmental impacts will generally be the driving force for decision making, particularly in the case of smaller structures that aren’t generating hydropower. For example, consider a private landowner who owns property that has an aging dam structure that impounds three acres of water on a cold water tributary. Let’s say the structure is in disrepair, the impoundment is partially full of sediment, the landowner is not using the impoundment for recreation, and the dam is serving no useful purpose. As we discussed above, up to half of Michigan’s dams may eventually fall into a category similar to this scenario. While many small dams may have a recreational component, others serve only to impound sediment, fragment fish populations, and warm impounded water. This scenario may be the best case for a removal, and often groups like CRA can help a landowner find funding help to plan and implement a removal. But, with any removal project, positive environmental impacts must be weighed against potential negatives, such as downstream movement of contaminated sediments or upstream migration of invasive species such as sea lamprey.

Now consider scenario number two. A dam owned by a small municipality is regulated by the Dam Safety statute, and needs serious repairs. A boat launch and park are present around the impoundment, which is used for swimming, fishing, and other recreation. While the dam certainly has negative environmental impacts, social considerations may very well outweigh environmental concerns, meaning that the dam owners have a decision to make, and removal may not be their best option. While dollars can often be found for removals, finding funding help for repairs to failing dams is much more difficult, leaving our municipality in the unenviable position of having to find funds for repairs or face possible legal action if mandated repairs aren’t completed.

While these two scenarios are quite different, they are not atypical of many situations currently playing out across the state. Unfortunately, the state’s responsibility of regulating dams for the safety of the public often puts them at odds with dam owners that feel they aren’t financially able to fund necessary repairs to structures that have outlived their usefulness. The key to resolving these issues is good communication between owners and regulators, though it often boils down to dollars and cents. The finances will often steer owners toward removal, particularly in cases involving regulated dams where public safety is a concern and there is no revenue being generated as may be the case with hydropower facilities.

While this doesn’t even scratch the surface of issues to be considered when it comes to dam removal versus dam repair and retention, it should give some food for thought. These are complex issues that often pit wildlife concerns against fishery concerns, or social concerns against financial and legal. In the end, our streams and rivers are generally better off without dams and the negative effects that come with them, but when it comes to dams, one size definitely does not fit all!


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