Failed dam owner fought with state over Wixom Lake levels before flood - mlive.com
By: Garret Ellison (mlive)
Michigan dam break leaves trail of destruction with severe flooding
By Garret Ellison | email@example.com
EDENVILLE, MI — Owners of a collapsed dam that caused major flooding in Michigan say they were pressured by the state to maintain elevated water levels on Wixom Lake behind it, despite concerns about the structure's ability to handle flooding. It is an accusation a state agency spokesperson calls "misinformation."
Boyce Hydro Power LLC owners accused Michigan regulators of being more concerned with preserving aquatic life and appeasing property owners than ensuring public safety in a statement following the catastrophic Edenville Dam collapse on Tuesday, May 19.
The resulting flood has displaced about 10,000 people and focused national attention on Michigan as floodwaters inundated the Midland area. Federal energy regulators have ordered Boyce Hydro to conduct a third-party investigation.
The dam's license to generate power was revoked in 2018.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vowed the state will "pursue every line of legal recourse" against those responsible for the calamity. On Thursday, she suggested that such critical infrastructure should not be in private hands.
Boyce Hydro, which has been criticized for failing to keep the Edenville Dam in compliance with federal regulations, said it sympathizes with those affected by the flood but defended its actions in the weeks and months before record rainfall caused the dam to fail.
In April, Boyce and the state sued each other in state and federal court over the company's attempts to lower Wixom Lake, an impoundment reservoir that the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) says is home to endangered freshwater mussels that were killed by drawdowns in 2018 and 2019.
Boyce says it asked EGLE for permission to lower Wixom Lake last fall "due to concern for the safety of its operators and the downstream community." EGLE and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources denied the request. Boyce lowered the lake without approval in mid-November "believing its safety concerns were paramount."
Boyce sued the state on April 29 in Grand Rapids federal court, arguing the state lacks scientific validation for its endangered species concerns and should allow the drawdowns.
According to a counter lawsuit filed against Boyce by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in Ingham County Circuit Court, the 8-foot drawdown was larger than the typical 3-feet and the exposed bottomlands resulted in the "death of thousands, if not millions, of freshwater mussels."
Boyce claims it raised the lake this spring "under pressure" from the shoreline residents and state regulators.
"The state agencies clearly care more about mussels living in the impoundment than they do about the people living downstream of the dams," said Lee Mueller, part owner of Boyce Hydro LLC, which owns the Edenville Dam.
On Thursday, EGLE disputed Boyce's claims and said Mueller wanted to lower Wixom Lake over the winter to prevent ice build-up on dam equipment without having to pay for heated power washing and labor; not to prevent a spring flood.
"There has been some misinformation about what transpired between Boyce and the state," said EGLE spokesperson Nick Assendelft. "The narrative by Boyce that somehow when the state was handed regulatory authority we pivoted from concerns about the infrastructure to concerns about clams is neither accurate nor fair."
"Boyce Hydro's desire to save money did not outweigh the natural resource damage an extended, winter drawdown would cause," Assendelft said.
EGLE assumed regulatory authority for the 96-year-old dam in late 2018 after its license to generate hydropower was revoked by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which had pushed Boyce Hydro for years to increase spillway capacity in order to handle a historic flood.
The 4.8 megawatt, 6,600-foot earth-gravity dam impounded both the Tittabawasee River and its tributary, the Tobacco River. It was built in 1925 and mostly used for flood control.
Edenville fell short of a federal requirement that dams that pose a significant danger to the public must be equipped to handle the largest predictable storm, called a "probable maximum flood" or PMF. Edenville's spillway capacity could only handle about half that level, which Boyce said "has been calculated to occur once in every 1,000,000 years."
This week's flood has been called a 500-year event.
The federal license revocation put the Edenville dam under state oversight, where the capacity requirement is lower. Michigan law requires high-hazard dams to withstand the equivalent of a 200-year flood. Edenville meets Michigan's capacity standard, according to federal records.
EGLE conducted a "cursory" inspection of the dam in October 2018 and declared it in fair condition with no obvious signs of imminent danger to the public. Nonetheless, Assendelft says EGLE maintained "strong concerns" the dam did not feature enough spillway capacity.
Boyce said it could not finance the estimated $8 million cost needed to build more spillways. The dam had six 20-foot-wide spillway gates before Tuesday's collapse.
Boyce said it began drawing down Wixom Lake and impoundments behind its other nearby dams — Secord, Sanford and Smallwood — on May 15 "in anticipation of what was predicted to be a major storm system." However, substantial rainfall in the river basins drove water levels on Wixom Lake to just a couple feet under the dam crest.
"This, combined with wave action due to high winds, eventually caused the water to penetrate the earthen dike at the east end, saturating it," Boyce said. The breach washed out about 900 feet of the earthen dike and sent impoundment water rushing downstream toward the Sanford Dam, which was quickly overtopped but did not immediately fail.
Boyce Hydro was in the process this year of selling the dams to a local task force that hoped to oversee repairs and bring stability to impoundment levels on both Wixom and Sanford lakes after years of discord between Mueller and shoreline homeowners.
Drawdowns have upset residents along Wixom and Sanford Lakes. The task force planned to ask a judge to set legal minimum lake levels once the sale went through.
Dave Kepler, a Sanford Lake resident who chairs the Four Lakes Task Force, said the $9.4 million sale would have been finalized this year, but indicated that outcome may be in doubt.
"Right now, we're focused on making sure we recover and everyone is safe," Kepler said Wednesday morning. "We'll have to sit back and reassess what happened and what the path forward its."