dam safety debated
Experts worry state budget cuts will gut inspection program
The Morning Sun (MI)
Published March 6th, 2005
LANSING (AP) — After three days of heavy rain in September
1986, the water pounding a Rainbow Lake dam made an ominous
sound Barbara Fox has never forgotten.
It sounded like dynamite blasting away at the southern
Gratiot County structure, threatening homes that depended
on its protection, she said.
When the dam finally failed, the rising water reached
no higher than the bottom of a hill on Fox's property.
But some of her neighbors' homes were partially submerged
in one of several Michigan floods that September, causing
extensive property damage.
"Some of the houses were under (water) up to their
rooftops,“ said Fox, who still lives in Fulton Township
near the now-improved dam. "It gave me a new respect
for water. Once it gets going, you aren't stopping it.“
The 1986 floods inspired a change in Michigan's dam safety
program. By 1990, new inspectors were hired and state
law toughened in an attempt to prevent future dam failures.
Fifteen years later, dam safety experts worry the program
could be gutted by state budget cuts. Gov. Jennifer Granholm
has proposed cutting the $350,000 program and farming
out more inspections to private contractors in the budget
year that starts Oct. 1. How much that would cost is not
Officials in the Granholm administration say the plan
won't compromise safety. Critics aren't convinced.
"The bottom line is it's increasing the risk to
public safety and property,“ said Sarah Mayfield, a spokeswoman
for the Association of State Dam Safety Officials in Lexington,
Michigan has about 2,500 dams, 1,048 of which are large
enough to require inspections under state regulations.
Those dams are inspected every three to five years, depending
on their potential hazard level.
Most dams are privately owned, so their inspections usually
are done by private firms. Michigan's three inspectors
and a supervisor focus on about 270 dams the state owns.
They finish about 75 inspections per year.
Another 100 dams, including many of the largest in the
state, fall under federal jurisdiction and aren't covered
by the state inspection program.
But state inspections likely would be contracted out
to private companies if Granholm's budget proposal passes
muster with the Legislature. It was not immediately known
Thursday how much money that would cost the state's Department
of Natural Resources, which would have responsibility
for the dams.
The Granholm administration says difficult choices are
necessary because of the projected $750 million shortfall
in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
"The state of Michigan is going through a very difficult
budget cycle,“ Department of Environmental Quality director
Steven Chester said. "We believe every program we
have is an important program — including the dam safety
program. But other programs wound up as higher priority.“
Granholm's budget proposal also would repeal portions
of Michigan's dam safety laws. That sparked concern among
some inside the Department of Environmental Quality, who
fear dams no longer would have to be inspected or maintained
at current standards.
Chester said those fears are unfounded. The only sections
of law intended for repeal deal with the DEQ's inspection
role, he said.
"Owners are still legally obligated to inspect their
own dams and make sure the integrity of dams is intact,“
Critics question why Michigan would tinker with a program
that's had apparent success.
The state reported 74 dam failures during the 1980s.
After Michigan strengthened its dam safety program, 17
failures were reported in the 1990s. Six dam failures
have been reported since 2000.
"We can't just divorce ourselves from the progress
we've made,“ said Don Winne, executive director of the
Michigan Lake and Stream Association.
Even Granholm says more needs to be done. She wrote President
Bush in August to urge more federal assistance for dam
Michigan has at least 20 dams with "serious deficiencies,“
Granholm wrote. Eleven of those had significant hazard
potential — meaning a failure could result in death or
significant property or environmental damage.
Six of the dams are owned by government entities, though
she didn't specify whether they're federal, state or local
"The nation's dams have been overlooked at significant
cost to property owners, public safety, and the environment,“
Granholm wrote. "The rapid deterioration of these
dams demands our attention and our national investment.“
Granholm's letter came more than a year after May 2003
floods in Marquette County's Champion Township. A fuse
plug on the Silver Lake Basin failed, releasing billion
of gallons of water into the Dead River. A dam was destroyed
as the water rushed toward Lake Superior, part of an estimated
$100 million in damage.
It was reminiscent of the 1986 floods, which primarily
were in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula.
The history lesson should not be lost on Michigan, supporters
of the dam safety program said. They're concerned about
how dam regulations would be enforced if the state program
Alabama, at present, is the only state without a dam
safety inspection program, Mayfield said.
"It's surprising Michigan would consider ending
this program,“ he said. "There needs to be somebody
making sure dams are safe.“