(The Center Square) – The Michigan Department of Natural Resources placed higher priority and granted more financial support to dam removals and protecting fish habitat than it did to repairing aging structures such as the Edenville Dam, according to DNR comments before a Senate Joint Committee.
DNR employees spoke during a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the Michigan Senate Energy and Technology and Environmental Quality Joint Committee.
It was the failure of the Edenville Dam amid two solid days of heavy rains that sent impoundment waters gushing to breach the Sanford Dam. Floodwaters submerged many areas throughout Midland County and other mid-Michigan areas, and wrought an estimated $200 million in property damage while draining the lakes that had existed in the impoundments since the 1920s.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has requested President Donald Trump declare the area a major disaster, which will clear the way for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief.
The purpose of the Tuesday meeting was for senators to receive an overview of the DNR Dam Management Program, similar to the purpose of the Joint Committee’s meeting with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Dam Safety Team one week ago.
According to DNR Resource Analyst Joe Nohner, the DNR had combined three separate department grant programs into one as of 2019. Those programs – Aquatic Habitat, Dam Management and Habitat Improvement – were renamed the Fisheries Habitat Grant.
Nohner told the senators that grants were considered for two main purposes, which he identified as ecological as well as health and human safety.
“Considerations for this grant and its funds are primarily ecological,” he said.
The repair of dams, however, wasn’t considered as high a priority as dam removals.
“Since 2012, the Dam Management Grant has funded 32 projects, totaling $16.95 million,” Nohner said. “Of those projects, 21 projects totaling $13.42 million were for dam removals and 10 projects totaling $1.88 million were dam repairs.”
Nohner continued by saying no Aquatic Habitat Grants had ever been appropriated for dam repairs, but those same grants had been used for removal of nine dams.
As reported previously by The Center Square, the three dams removed on the Boardman River outside Traverse City between 2012 and 2017 were all structurally sound, but were removed anyway ostensibly to increase public recreation and tourism opportunities.
The DNR appropriated a portion of the funds necessary to remove the Boardman River structures, which DNR Dam Management Grant Analyst Chip Kosloski told The Center Square amounted to $432,725.
Last summer, however, the DNR rejected an application by the Four Lakes Task Force seeking $1.6 million to repair the dams. The application was rejected in part because FLTF wasn’t the owner of the Edenville Dam.
Nohner said the FLTF pre-proposal was rejected before moving to the next level of consideration in which DNR officials and EGLE Dam Safety Management Team members vetted the proposals.
In response to questions from Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, Nohner said prioritizing ecological concerns over health and human safety was the DNR’s internal policy rather than instituted by statute.
“I’m appalled at the fact that safety concerns have to go through Fisheries and get vetted by biology rather than by public safety interests,” McBroom said.
“And whether we need a serious revamping of this, or need to house it in a different department, I don’t know, but this is, in my opinion, just appalling,” McBroom said