A big dam problem: The disaster in Michigan and solutions for the future

A dam failure and a flood, in the middle of a global pandemic: it’s a worst-case scenario.

Edenville Dam, MI | Courtesy of Ryan Kaleto

A dam failed in Michigan yesterday, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. The Edenville Dam, which failed, and the Sanford Dam, which was compromised, are on the Tittabawassee River, a tributary of the Saginaw River. The failures followed days of heavy rainfall and sent floodwaters into downstream communities. Residents of Edenville, Midland and Sanford were evacuated.

Together we protect rivers

Healthy rivers are the lifeblood of our communities and our environment, and we depend on essential infrastructure like dams. It’s time to prioritize river protection, and investment in smart infrastructure. Our communities, our economy and our lives depend on it.
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A dam failure and a flood, in the middle of a global pandemic: it’s a worst-case scenario. The immediate focus needs to be protecting public health and safety. Governor Whitmer encouraged people to seek shelter with friends or relatives, and to take precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

How did this happen?

Why did these particular dams fail? Was it because of heavy rains? Climate change? Faulty, aging infrastructure? Lack of action by the dam owner? Right now, we know the following:

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  • The Edenville Dam was plagued by concerns and safety violations. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked its hydropower license in 2018 due to concerns that the dam could not withstand a significant flood. FERC flagged problems for the dam’s owner starting in 1999.
  • Climate change is bringing more severe and frequent flooding at a time when our nation’s infrastructure is aging and outdated.
  • The American Society of Civil Engineers has repeatedly given our nation’s dams a grade of D in their “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” – citing age, downstream development, dam abandonment and lack of funding for dam safety programs. More dams will fail, endangering people and property, unless we act to repair essential infrastructure and remove dams that no longer make sense. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates there are more than 2,000 high-hazard dams nationwide in deficient condition.
  • The dam failure in Michigan isn’t the first “wake up call” when it comes to the need to address aging infrastructure. Dozens of dams failed in the Carolinas five years ago; thousands of residents were evacuated due to the partial failure of nation’s tallest dam, Oroville Dam on the Feather River, three years ago; and last year the Spencer Dam failed in Nebraska forcing evacuations. These disasters aren’t specific to one region, they are impacting communities nationwide.
Oroville Dam spillway debris in Feather River | Photo by Dale Kolke, CA DWR
Oroville Dam spillway debris in Feather River | Photo by
Dale Kolke, CA DWR

While we’re still learning about the specifics of this disaster which is still unfolding in Michigan, the following three actions are necessary to protect communities in the future:

  1. Increase, don’t decrease, public safety and environmental safeguards – The safety of federally licensed hydropower dams is overseen by FERC.  While FERC revoked the dam’s license in 2018 due to safety concerns, that clearly was not enough to prevent this week’s catastrophe.  Moreover, on the same day the dams failed, President Trump signed a new executive order to roll back more regulations under the guise of restarting the economy. Further gutting the regulations that safeguard human lives and safety and protect the environment is the wrong way to produce a sustainable economic recovery.
  2. Strengthen evaluation and enforcement – Michigan has a working dam safety program.  Even so, state dam safety offices are historically underfunded with a limited number of staff responsible for inspecting thousands of dams. We must improve these efforts by making it the responsibility of dam owners to inspect and maintain their dams; requiring more frequent, detailed inspections of deficient dams and increasing penalties for unsafe dams and violations; and, requiring dam owners to ensure that funds are available to repair or remove dams in the event they can’t or won’t meet safety standards. As communities continue to grow and development expands, many dams may also be misclassified as infrastructure and development increases downstream.
  3. Increase funding for dam removal and water infrastructure – Dam removal can be the best way to address a dam that poses a safety risk. There are tens of thousands of dams across the country that no longer serve the purpose they were built to provide and whose removal could eliminate the cost and liability associated with owning a dam. Unless they are well maintained, their condition only gets worse every year. The most cost-effective and permanent way to deal with obsolete, unsafe dams is to remove them.

Healthy rivers are the lifeblood of our communities and our environment, and we depend on essential infrastructure to provide water, power and other services. It’s time to prioritize river protection, and investment in smart infrastructure. Our communities, our economy and our lives depend on it.