Trust the Science

Marty Holtgren PHD
Principle Watershed Scientist
Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

Over 90,000 dams are located on rivers and streams throughout the United States. In Michigan, thousands of small, privately owned dams are obsolete because they don’t serve their original purpose and are in a deteriorating condition. Since many are unregulated and not maintained, they often pose significant public safety risks along with environmental damage and economic threat.

The degree of risk became abundantly clear on the Tittabawassee River last May.

In a report to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Leisl Eichler Cark, director of The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) summarized the events: “On May 19, 2020, following heavy rainfall in the Gladwin and Midland County areas, the privately-owned Edenville Dam failed, releasing a torrent of water that caused the downstream Sanford Dam to fail. The resulting floods forced some 10,000 residents to evacuate. Homes, businesses, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure were destroyed, with damages estimated at $200 million. The unspeakable hardship that followed for thousands of our fellow Michiganders was exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

A house is under water near the Sanford Dam on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. After the Edenville Dam failed and the Tittabawassee River flooded surrounding areas, many residents were urged to leave their homes and to brace themselves for the possibility of the Sanford Dam collapsing.


Water begins to spill over the Sanford Dam on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. The Edenville Dam failed shortly before this happened and the Tittabawassee River began to flood quickly.


The report dated February of 2021 was in response to the governors May 27, 2020 letter, directing the agency to, ”investigate the events leading up to this disaster and recommend policy, legislative, budgetary, and enforcement reforms to prevent a catastrophe of this kind from happening again.”

In response EGLE launched a 19-member Michigan Dam Safety Task Force to “review the statutory structure, budget, and program design of the Water Resources Division’s Dam Safety Program; the adequacy of Michigan’s dam safety standards; and the level of investment needed in Michigan’s dam infrastructure.”

As Principal Watershed Scientist for the MRWA, I was pleased to receive an invitation to serve on the task force, along with state department heads, engineers, dam safety officials and other scientists and experts.  Governor Whitmer asked the group to take a comprehensive look at the state’s 2,500 dams including approximately 1100, which fall under state regulation. A critical question concerned whether the safety regulations are appropriate.

Over six months, the Task Force met seven times, held 15 work group meetings, and provided ample opportunity for public input. Its deliberations were also informed by the peer review of the state Dam Safety Program, which EGLE commissioned the Association of State Dam Safety Officials to conduct.

The resulting final report, which received unanimous support from the Task Force, includes 86 recommendations across eight key areas in addition to outreach and awareness:

  1. Funding for Dam Maintenance, Repair, and Removal;
  2. Legislation and Authority;
  3. Improving Dam Safety;
  4. Compliance and Enforcement;
  5. Emergency Response;
  6. Program Management,
  7. Funding, and Budgeting;
  8. Safety and Security at Dams;

It was clear to me that the task force realized that the problem of deteriorating dams has been progressively getting worse.  The group methodically worked through issues of dam safety in Michigan knowing that a failure to comprehensively address dam safety issues would risk the safety of people and could cause significant damage to natural resources.

The task group provided recommendations through regulatory, legislative, and funding improvements.  I am encouraged to see that legislation has recently been introduced that would provide significant funding towards dam removal and improvement, and in some cases, rebuilding.”

At the onset, many of us realized that although dam removal is often the best option for addressing public safety risks and improving natural resources that it wasn’t a focus of current efforts.  The opportunity to realize the benefits of removing dams is upon us and to only consider repairing or reinstalling a dam is not using the best science or benefiting the public and natural resources in the fullest way.  MRWA, along with many other organizations in the state, are evaluating dams to determine which ones are candidates for removal and which still maintain an important purpose.