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Great Lakes Article:

Michigan 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 yet known.

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, Ky.

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, Chester said.

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 repairs.

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 government properties.

"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 ends.

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.


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