Issue No. 3 | March 2021

By Jack F. Petroskey

One of the benefits of living in or visiting Michigan is that one is never far from the water. Inland lakes in Michigan provide residents and visitors alike with a place to enjoy the summer months with friends and family. Many Michigan residents own property on inland lakes. However, on February 12, 2021, a report from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy painted a sobering picture of the condition of the infrastructure supporting Michigan’s inland waterways.

The Michigan Dam Safety Task Force (the “Task Force”) Report stated that Michigan’s 2,600 dams, many of which are aging, poorly maintained, and/or inadequately engineered for changing environmental conditions, require “comprehensive and immediate attention” to avoid catastrophic flooding. The Task Force provided a list of 86 recommendations to Governor Whitmer, which addressed a host of regulatory, legal and funding fixes designed to fix aging dams and boost oversight and enforcement of dam safety.

Governor Whitmer convened the Task Force last year, after the Edenville and Sanford dams collapsed May 19, 2020 amid heavy rainfall following years of warnings from federal and state regulators that Edenville’s spillway could not withstand a large flood. The failures devastated the Midland area, flooding downstream communities and forcing 11,000 people to evacuate, while causing $200 million in damages to more than 2,500 structures. Moreover, Wixom Lake and Sanford Lake were drained as a result of the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams, which resulted in millions of dollars in lost property value for lakefront property owners.

The Tax Force’s recommendations provided several recommendations, which included changing state law to require surveillance and monitoring plans for all high and significant hazard dams, creating a revolving loan fund to provide money for dam improvements, maintenance and removal, creating a grant program for scoping or design of projects to fix or remove dams, and generally increasing funding to enhance the removal of failing dams.

Maybe more significantly, the Task Force sought to address the underlying problem of private dam ownership in Michigan. In Michigan, private entities are permitted to own dams that affect inland waterways. A significant portion of the 2,600 dams in Michigan are privately owned. The Edenville and Sanford Dams that collapsed in May of 2020 were both privately owned dams. The Task force recommended that the state require dam owners to prove they can pay to safely operate and maintain or remove their dam, and require them to have insurance that could cover the cost of a catastrophic failure. They also suggested creating an emergency fund so state officials can fix hazards at dams if the dam owner can’t or won’t pay for repairs.

As with most infrastructure problems in the United States, the problem surrounding aging dams in Michigan comes down to a lack of funding. Private dam owners lack economic incentive to fix the dams they own, and, according to the Task Force, the state of Michigan would need to raise $420 million in funding over a 20-year period to implement the repairs or removal of aging dams that it recommends.

Property owners on any of Michigan’s inland lakes should take steps now to insure they are properly covered in the event of a local dam failure. This would include contacting an insurance agent to make sure your property is covered by the necessary insurance. Moreover, lakefront property owners should consider contacting their state legislatures and ask them to enact the recommendation that the Task Force suggested in their February 25, 2021 report to Governor Whitmer.

A link to the complete task force report is here.

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