Jon Bumstead Legislative Report

Jon Bumstead
Michigan State Senator
Director, Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

On Tuesday May 20th two dams on the Tittibiwassee  River in central Michigan failed sequentially resulting  in a disastrous chain of events that ultimately left the city of Midland under 9 feet of water. Now more than two months later, the flood has receded but extensive damage remains and many property owners are looking for answers.

Currently, Boyce Hydro, owner of both dams is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Michigan Attorney General on behalf of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great lakes and Energy (EGLE) seeking compensation, civil fines and damages.

On the other hand, Boyce Hydro blames the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the disaster. FERC revoked their license to generate hydropower from the Edenville dam in 2018 for repeated failures to address safety issues. As a result, the operators claim they were no longer able to generate the revenue necessary to make the mandated repairs.

When the federal government revoked the license, they also relinquished regulatory responsibility. The Edenville dam became the state’s problem and EGLE was in the process of addressing the safety concerns when the dam failed. It will likely take years to achieve a satisfactory resolution but in any case, the price tag will reach significant levels.  Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has requested $200,000,000 in federal disaster relief while Detroit attorney Jeffery Fieger, issued a statement claiming total costs will exceed one billion dollars, most of which  are uninsured.

While I sympathize with all of the area citizens, who have suffered from these events my main priority is to prevent a recurrence.

According to the data compiled by EGLE, the numbers are daunting:

  • There are more than 2500 dams in Michigan
  • Over half are unregulated
  • Of the remainder, 1092 are regulated by the state while only 92 currently generate power and are federally regulated

Of those dams regulated by the state, eighty-five receive the high hazard classification, which means that in the event of a breach, there is an expectation of severe damage and potential loss of life. According to the most recent EGLE survey, most of these are in satisfactory condition with five rated as poor. At this time, none are considered unsatisfactory, the lowest rating.  At the time of the failure, the Edenville dam was in the high hazard group with a poor rating.

The first and most important action is to gain a complete and accurate picture of the condition of all the dams in Michigan, confirming, or when appropriate, revising the EGLE data.

Many of you may be aware that I serve on the board of directors of the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly (MRWA), an environmental organization with a focus on the main stem of the Muskegon River and all of the tributaries. The MRWA is one of the few NGO’s in Michigan with a history of successful dam removal. We take a scientific approach to the problem, continually exploring opportunities to remove dams that present a significant financial and environmental threat.

This spring, MRWA executive director, Dr. Marty Holtgren submitted a proposal to EGLE requesting funding to update an existing watershed management plan. Recently, EGLE representative, Michelle Storey, contacted Marty to confirm that they had agreed to fund the proposal. When complete, the study will provide an up to date analysis of the dams in the lower Muskegon River watershed from Croton to Muskegon.

Our intent is to offer our findings, including the dam inventory to other watersheds in the state of Michigan resulting in a fact-based plan to address the complex issues surrounding obsolete dams.  In brief, we intend to prioritize the high hazard dams in poor condition and develop a systematic removal strategy. This will require significant financial resources but will cost far less than cleaning up another disastrous failure.