Liesl Clark Luke Trumble

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy Director Liesl Clark and Luke Trumble, EGLE Dam Safety Unit Supervisor Luke Trumble. 

(The Center Square) – Nearly one year after two dams on the Tittabawasee River failed, destroying 2,500 businesses and homes, the House Appropriations Subcommittee met to hear testimony from the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

EGLE Director Liesl Clark and Luke Trumble, EGLE Dam Safety Unit supervisor, appeared before the subcommittee on Tuesday morning to discuss the list of 86 recommendations compiled by the 19 members of Michigan Dam Safety Task Force.

The task force was convened by Clark after the failure of two dams northwest of Midland on May 19, 2020.

According to Trumble, three of the task force’s 86 recommendations have been completed thus far, including increasing the visibility of EGLE’s Dam Safety Program, as well as establishing a stand-alone EGLE Dam Safety Unit, and naming a supervisor to oversee the unit’s operations.

Among the recommendations in process of realization is a package of three financial programs to assist dam owners struggling with compliance issues, including a revolving grant and loan program; an emergency fund should a dam pose an imminent threat of failure; and a grant program for dam removal.

The Edenville Dam was breached and the Sanford Dam was destroyed during massive mid-Michigan rainstorms in May 2020, which Subcommittee Chair Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, called “a 500-year event.”

During one 48-hour spell, nearly 4.7 inches of rain fell on Midland County while more than eight inches of rain fell directly to the north in Gladwin County during the same time period. The resulting floods caused an estimated $200 million in property damage, and prompted the evacuation of 11,000 residents.

Questions surrounding the regulatory oversight responsibility of the dams were among the topics addressed by the task force, as well as the responsibility of the dams’ owners at the time of the dams’ failures. The dams were privately owned at the time by Boyce Hydroelectric, but were in the process of being sold to the Four Lakes Task Force, a private/public enterprise.

Because the Edenville Dam produced hydroelectricity, regulatory authority initially belonged to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. When FERC pulled Boyce’s permit to produce energy due to the declining structural integrity of the Edenville Dam, regulatory authority shifted to EGLE in the fall of 2018. A preliminary EGLE inspection concluded at the time the dam was safe.

A subsequent 2019 inspection conducted by the Spicer Group concluded the Edenville Dam did not meet the state’s requirements for adequate spillway capacity. 

Additionally, Boyce was sued for $300 million in April 2020 by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, EGLE and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources after it had defied a court order by lowering water levels during the winter. The state agencies claimed lowering the water allegedly harmed the Tittabawasee ecosystem, including but not limited to native freshwater mussels.

Regional Editor

Bruce Walker is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s MichiganScience magazine and The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.