Dam Removal and the Problem of Articulating Positive Change

Garrett Stack, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English
Ferris State University


Dam removal is no easy feat. There are issues related to deconstruction costs, contaminated sediment removal, loss of ponds and lakes, ownership rights, and a host of other small hurdles to jump before a targeted dam may be removed. But the task is incredibly vital for the health of waterways, and especially so here in Michigan where most of the 2000+ dams have aged beyond their design life and are already considered unsafe.


In addition to being potentially hazardous, these dam dinosaurs prevent fish and other biotic material, debris, and sediment from moving along the natural course, deplete oxygen levels, and cause temperatures to rise. All of these side effects negatively alter the health of the river’s ecosystem.


Given this information, it’s fair to wonder why so many dams exist in the first place. Much of the history of Michigan’s dams is tied to its early industry, and most particularly to timber. Dams were vital both for the shipping of timber downriver as well as for powering sawmills. Later, dams were built to provide hydroelectric power and recreation opportunities for fisherman and boaters. Though the latter purposes still exist in some cases, hydropower is notoriously difficult to maintain consistently.[1] As well, the draw of lakes depends entirely upon local populations, ease of access, and the consistency of maintenance and fish stocking programs, while undammed rivers have been proven to naturally reinvigorate fish populations.[2]


The MRWA utilizes a means of targeting dams for potential removal and assessing these sites based on a series of factors including a projection of cost to remove a dam, surveyed social acceptance of dam removal, potential habitat benefit, and opportunity for removal.[3] The process involves applying a point system to dams based upon technical criteria, such as dam age and potential temperature recovery, as well as non-technical factors, such as social acceptance. Though not perfect (what system is?) the assessment process takes much of the guesswork out, and allows for a data-driven approach to prioritizing removal targets.


Using this system, the current highest ranked candidate for removal is the Miller (Nartron) Dam on the Hersey River in Reed City. The Miller (Nartron) Dam is so named because of its location next to the both-abandoned Miller Airport and Nartron Corporation wire product assembly plant. The dam was used to power these institutions, but since their closure, it no longer serves a functional purpose. The lake the dam creates, Lake No Sho Mo, appears to be infrequently used for recreation, and removal of the dam would create an unbroken connection between the Muskegon River’s headwaters and confluence.


According to a MRWA assessment, removal of the Miller (Nartron) Dam earns the highest score of 61.1 points. The dam is so highly ranked because of the age of the dam (built in 1956) and the benefit to the water system in terms of the reduction of temperature, gradient recovery, and miles freed. Though the pond is relatively large (23 acres), it is insignificant compared to larger potential targets such as the 19,600 acre Houghton Lake Level Control Structure. Thus the cost, though not insignificant, is manageable. So long as donors can be found, as was the case in raising the $274,000 needed for the successful Hersey Dam removal project, the project faces no extreme technical hurdles.


Perhaps the largest obstacle in any dam removal, aside from fundraising, arises from the social perspective. Buy-in from both the local public and from the dam owner is notoriously tricky to obtain. In some cases, the body of water the dam creates is a treasured resource for recreation or aesthetics. In these cases, dam removal causes not only loss of standing water but also the exposure of the lakebed. Stump strewn and weed choked, swampy lakebeds are not the most pleasing to the eye generally speaking, especially when compared to the lake itself. This concern was raised recently in the Boardman River Project near Traverse City.[4] But just as in other dam removal projects, biologists and engineers suggest patience and time will restore both the Boardman River and it natural beauty.


In other cases, ownership is reluctant to sign on to a project they see as at best unnecessary and at worst a liability to business or reputation. Most dams in the United States are privately owned,[5] and owners are suspicious of creating problems. Though over 70% of American dams are over 50 years old,[6] the immediate benefits of dam removal for an ecosystem are often difficult to explain and even harder to see with the naked eye.


So what are the solutions? In short, I suggest communication. There are three factors that I think are important to clear up when approaching local community members and dam owners: cost, effectiveness, and benefits.


In terms of cost, the MRWA has had incredible success in fundraising so that owners are not primarily responsible for shouldering the cost of removal. Plus, removal has the added benefit of cancelling the potential future failure of the dam and related costs.


In terms of effectiveness, we need point no further than Hersey Dam, Manton Dam, Boardman Dam, etc. both for the improvements to the local ecosystem[7] and the rapidity of aesthetic progress.[8] As soon as mere months after dam removal is complete, even a casual observer can see the return of natural flora and fauna to the area.


In terms of benefits, it is often important to speak directly to sportsmen to emphasize the improvement in fish population throughout the entire river system. And for owners, to emphasize the reduced liability if the aging dam should fail.


Open and direct lines of communication can be difficult to establish and even more difficult to maintain, but it is only through effective communication that groups like the MRWA can make progress in these local communities. As members, you can help spread the positive word about dam removal and lead the charge to open up Michigan water.

[1] See “Environmental Constraints on Hydropower: An Ex Post Benefit-Cost Analysis of Dam Relicensing in Michigan” (Kotchen et al., Land Economics, 2006)

[2] See “The Effects of the Stonarch Dam Removal on Fish in the Pine Rive, Manistee County, Michigan” (Burroughs et al., Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 2010)

[3] See “Dam Reconnaissance Study in The Muskegon Watershed” (MRWA 2010)


[4] See https://www.record-eagle.com/news/local_news/final-restoration-of-boardman-river-site-to-begin-in-june/article_04ade702-5a38-53ea-838b-ed83ebb6ce9e.html

[5] See https://www.fema.gov/dam-ownership-united-states

[6] See https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/23/us/americas-aging-dams-are-in-need-of-repair.html

[7] See “Long-Term Implications of Dam Removal for Macroinvertebrate Communities in Michigan and Wisconsin Rivers, United States (Hansen and Hayes, River Research and Applications, 2012)

[8] See “Those Doggone Dams!” (MWEA, 2013).