“Nothing is softer and more yielding than water, yet nothing is better in attacking the solid and forceful,” teaches Chinese sage Laozi in the Dao de Ching.
Or, as Lansing dam safety expert Russell Hicks put it, “A river’s gonna do what a river’s gonna do.”
A year ago, on May 17-19, 2020 — 12 days before Dam Safety Awareness Day — a deluge of up to 8 inches of rain in 48 hours swelled the Tittabawassee River in eastern central Michigan, sending a surge of water that breached two dams, damaged 2,500 buildings and caused over 10,000 people to evacuate the towns of Midland and Sanford.
The Michigan Dam Safety Task Force is a state-advisory panel created last year of representatives of government, industry and environmental organizations. In February, it found “important gaps in law, capacity and tools to ensure dam safety” in the state.
There are over 2,500 dams in Michigan and 90,000 across the nation. Most of them are more than 50 years old and getting older in an era of extreme rainfall events in Michigan and across the nation that are becoming more frequent and more catastrophic.
State dam safety officials say that Lansing’s two dams have been well maintained by their owner, the Lansing Board of Water & Light. But the Moores Park and North Lansing dams are well over 80 years old, and increasingly extreme weather is likely to test them in their old age as never before.
Bill Rustem, a Dam Safety Task Force member and adviser to former governors William Milliken and Rick Snyder, called the Midland dam failures “a wake-up call for the state of Michigan.”
“You see more frequent, intense rainstorms, and you’re going to see more in the future,” Rustem said. “Woken up by these two dam failures, it’s time to take a good look at how we’re handling our infrastructure, with an understanding that we’re going to face greater challenges in the future as the climate continues to change.”
Worst case scenario
The 21-foot-high Moores Park Dam bisects the Grand River next to the Eckert Power Station, impounding a broad, 240-acre stretch of river. About three miles downstream from Moores Park, the North Lansing dam, 20 feet high, sends a picturesque cascade into the heart of Old Town, near the intersection of Cesar Chavez Avenue and Turner Street in Old Town.
The Moores Park Dam, built in 1908, has been extensively repaired several times, most recently in the summer of 2020, but it has never been replaced. The current North Lansing dam, built in 1936, is the latest in a series of dams that go back to 1838. The first, earthen North Lansing dam, failed in a flood in 1844. Since the current concrete dams were built, there have been no failures.
Hundreds of Michigan towns and cities, including Lansing, rest on rivers shaped by dams.
“Dams were the first source of energy, really, for our civilization,” Douglas Jester explained. Jester is vice chairman of the Michigan Dam Safety Task Force. “That’s why we find so many small, former milldams in the center of Michigan’s communities.” The North Lansing dam began as a milldam; the mill itself is still standing, and is now home of the Clark Hill law firm.
But when communities grow around a dam, as many Michigan towns did a century and a half ago, a maximum number of people are affected by a dam failure. The city of Lansing lists the Moores Park dam as “high risk,” not because of its condition, but because of the impact a failure would have on the surrounding floodplain and further downriver. The assessment is based on national data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, listing Moores Park as “high hazard potential,” meaning that “loss of human life likely if dam fails.”
The corps assigned the North Lansing Dam a lesser degree of risk, or “significant” hazard potential, meaning “no probable loss of human life, but can cause economic loss, damage, disruption of lifeline facilities, or impact other concerns.”
Ryan Filbin, a Ph.D. geography student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, studied stream flow in the Grand River five years ago, as a student at Western Michigan University. In a 2017 paper, Filbin declared the two dams “deteriorating structures presenting a threat to the downtown Lansing area.”
“Hopefully, the Midland disaster serves as a lesson for Lansing, where the potential is there as well,” Filbin said. “If you get 10 inches of rain in a 12-hour span, and that water has nowhere to go and you have a catastrophic failure — it’s going to be more catastrophic in Lansing, just based on the population density.”
Luke Trumble is the supervisor of the Dam Safety Unit, a part of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE. Trumble said the state inspects the North Lansing dam every three years. After a series of major fixes, from 2011 through 2016, “that dam has been largely rehabilitated,” Trumble said.
The Moores Park dam is inspected every year by federal inspectors, because it has been used to produce hydroelectric power, with an “in-depth” inspection ever five years, Trumble said. Inspections of the Moores Park dam are likely to revert to the state, because the utility is surrendering its federal license to generate hydropower, which was set to expire in 2024. The dam isn’t generating power at present, but it’s still draining money.
The BWL replaced the adjustable floodgates at the Moores Park dam and upgraded the powerhouse there in summer 2020, at a cost of $1.3 million.
“BWL has a very good record of having inspections done, reviewing the recommendations and taking positive action,” Trumble said. “They’ve done major rehabilitations at both dams.”
An inspection of the North Lansing dam in 2007 revealed that erosion on the dam had undercut the river bottom and the “scouring” could lead to dam failure. The BWL shored up the dam with new concrete piers and huge granite boulders. The repairs, completed in 2011, cost $1.2 million in BWL operating funds.
But there’s no guarantee the dams will hold, according to Russell Hicks, a longtime dam safety speaker and member of the North Lansing Dam Removal Workgroup.
William Engelter, Lansing’s emergency management chief, referred all dam-related questions to Hicks. Ronda Oberlin, described by Engelter as “our experienced floodplain manager and dam expert,” retired as Lansing’s hazard mitigation coordinator in 2020. Engelter said the city hopes to fill the position with a knowledgeable dam expert by the end of May.
Before Oberlin retired, Hicks drew up a list of completed and proposed dam removals in Michigan and other states, at her request. Engelter said the city consults with Hicks on dam-related matters.
Hicks can launch an armada of reasons old dams need to be dismantled as soon as possible, from human safety to flood mitigation to restoration of habitat for wildlife, especially fish. As part of a demonstration on dam safety, he sent aluminum canoes over the North Lansing Dam to be crumpled by the fierce “boil” beneath in 2018 and 2019, in tandem with multiple city and federal departments.
Hicks said low-head dams like North Lansing’s have claimed multiple lives in recent years, swallowing multiple anglers and kayakers. A kayaker drowned going over the North Lansing Dam on Feb. 27, 2018.
“Over 40 first responders searched for over a week in a terrible, bank-full river with boats and Zodiaks that were overmatched for the river conditions which put our search and rescue personnel at risk,” Hicks said.
Comparing one dam failure to another is a tricky business, but Hicks is concerned about the widespread risk of storms “overtopping” Lansing’s two dams, possibly causing dam failure and widespread flooding, especially downtown.
“Since BWL spent nearly $3 million rebuilding Moores Park over the last four years, it is unlikely that it would fail,” Hicks said. “However, ‘unlikely’ is not a guarantee, if there was a storm or rain event that dumped six, nine, 12 inches of rain on the river upstream of Moores Park.”
Trumble agreed that the risk of once-rare deluges appears to be increasing. “We do see, in Michigan, a lot of these high-intensity, localized rainfall events — 100-year floods, 500-year floods, that are becoming more frequent,” Trumble said. “The Muskegon River had a 500-year event in 2014. Houghton had a 1,000-year event, the Father’s Day flood of 2018.”
In what Hicks called a “worst case scenario,” a sudden deluge could bring about a cascading double dam disaster in Lansing, along the lines of last spring’s Midland flooding. The broad stretches of water impounded by the Moores Park dam, where the Michigan Princess chugs along and MSU crew holds its practice runs, would add its considerable weight to the 92 acres of impounded river between the Moores Park dam and a “weakened” North Lansing dam, “which in turn, would send additional water surging toward Grand Ledge,” Hicks said. “All of downtown Lansing along the river would be affected.”
The North Lansing dam is designed to withstand a 200-year flood, according to Trumble. The Moores Park Dam is designed to withstand a Probable Maximum Flood, defined by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as “the theoretically largest flood resulting from a combination of the most severe meteorological and hydrologic conditions that could conceivably occur in a given area.”
That sounds rock solid, but the conceivable is bending into the inconceivable in the 21st century, as 200-year floods and worse are proliferating in Michigan and across the country.
“With increased catastrophic rainfall events like Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 45 inches of rain on parts of Texas, and Hurricane Matthew, which caused 13 dams to fail in the Carolinas, it is not a matter of if, but when it will happen here,” Hicks said.
Hicks compared his hypothetical worst-case Lansing scenario to the failure of Nebraska’s Spencer Dam in March 2019, when a combination of heavy rain, snowmelt and breaking ice sent an 11-foot wall of water downstream, washing out dozens of buildings, a bridge and a highway in the town of Niobara and killing a homeowner just downstream from the dam.
“Spencer was nearly three times the size of Moores Park, but even a 4-foot surge in Lansing would be devastating to some sections of the river, buildings, and the city’s infrastructure,” Hicks said.
BWL General Manager Dick Peffley said about 50 structures would be affected if the Moores Park dam were to fail.
Until Friday, residents had to file a FOIA with the BWL to learn whether their home or business is in the Moores Park and North Lansing inundation area. Friday afternoon, a set of inundation maps, based on a recent study of the Grand River, went up on the BWL’s website.
Re-wilding the rivers
Engineers have many ways of de-escalating angry river surges in lieu of dams. Most of them involve digging channels and stacking rocks in patterns with alphabet-soup names like “J-hooks” and “W-weirs.”
In 1995, an obsolete, 260-foot-long dam in the village of Dimondale, just southwest of Lansing, showed early signs of breaching. The BWL, the owner of the dam, sold it to the village for a dollar.
In 2006, the dam was demolished, carted off and replaced with a zig-zagging, W-shaped weir, or rock barrier, that allows fish to swim upstream and kayakers to go downstream — the first such design to be built in Michigan. The state Department of Natural Resources and river expert Sandy Verry from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, worked with the city and other partners. It took only two weeks to complete the project, at a cost of $540,000, offset by a $199,000 grant from the DNR’s Inland Fisheries Grant Program.
The bubbling, rippling weir has a way of calming people as well as water flow, and it’s now the centerpiece of shady Sanford Park in the heart of Dimondale.
“It’s pretty cool, and they were able to keep the levels they wanted without the dam there,” Peffley said.
In 2016, Hicks participated in a similar project, the removal of the 1918 West Sanitation Low-head Dam in Eaton Rapids.
“The natural rock ramps built for fish passage at Dimondale and Eaton Rapids can be built at the North Lansing Dam as well as Moores,” Hicks said.
In 2018, a Lansing contractor — Davis Construction — demolished the crumbling 98-year-old Hamilton Dam on the Flint River, just north of the University of Michigan-Flint campus.
The $3.1 million project is part of a “re-wilding” of the Flint River Corridor that includes new rapids, better kayaking and canoeing access, and vastly improved river ecology. The Flint River took a lot of industrial punishment in the 20th century, “but it’s amazing just how quickly rivers begin to heal once we remove these obsolete structures,” Hicks said
Hicks cited a long list of successful dam removals, in Michigan (on the AuSable near Grayling and the Maple River north of Pellston) and across the country.
In 2014-2015, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative spearheaded the Frankenmuth Fish Passage Project, removing an 1850 dam across the Cass River about 20 miles south of the Saginaw Bay.
Hicks called the Frankenmuth project “almost a twin” of what could be done at the North Lansing Dam, right down to a “probable final design,” with a sunburst pattern of 13 boulder weirs over 300 feet of riverbanks and “a similar river width, bank-to-bank, with a central paddling channel.” The Frankenmuth project cost $3.5 million, about $2.3 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
When the restoration was completed, walleye and lake sturgeon returned to a 73-mile stretch of the Cass River after more than 150 years.
The granddaddy of Michigan’s numerous dam replacement projects has set the ambitious goal of restoring the Grand Rapids to Grand Rapids. The $45 million Whitewater project, scheduled to break ground this summer, would remove five dams along the Grand River and replace them with rock and boulder barriers that will restore river habitat and, it is hoped, usher in a new era of river recreation.
No days off
The BWL’s Peffley said the utility would be happy if Lansing took the Moores Park dam off its hands.
“We no longer need the dam,” Peffley said. “They were required when we had operating power plants. As far as the board is concerned, whatever the city, the community, the stakeholders want, we’re on board. We don’t have any reason to keep the dam there.”
Trumble was careful to point out that the state’s Dam Safety Program takes no position on whether a dam should be dismantled, only that the dam, or its replacement structure, be maintained safely.
“It’s a highly contentious subject,” Trumble said. “There are people who want to see natural rivers, and the flow and connectivity restored, and people who want to keep waterfront property they can float a boat on.”
Just upstream from the Moores Park Dam stretches the area’s premier boating playground, where water skiers and pontoon boaters are as common a sight as blue herons and kingfishers.
“You couldn’t just take the dam out,” Peffley said. “You’d have to figure out how to have some kind of rapids, or weir, so you wouldn’t lose the impoundment all the way back to Dimondale. There’s a lot of property owners.”
Hicks said it can be done, and has been done, dismissing resistance to dam removal as “the emotional tug that some people have for concrete and rebar.”
“The river made the city, not the dams,” Hicks said. “Now that many dams are no longer needed or used as intended, we’ve learned that we can deconstruct them and return the rivers to a more natural state that benefits the new view of our rivers.”
Rustem, a member of the Dam Safety Task Force, has found that too many people think of dams as just a part of the landscape.
“They are not,” he said. “The flow of water and the pressure of impoundment is an inexorable degradation of the dam. You can’t just ignore them forever.”
Hicks will probably bring the crumpled canoe that went over the North Lansing Dam in 2018 to a dam safety program scheduled near the Brenke Fish Ladder on Memorial Day. There you can swim, if you dare, in the undertow of his multiple arguments for the removal of obsolete dams.
“A ‘wait and see’ approach to maintenance, such as the owner of the Edenville and Sanford dams held for 20 years, culminated in a quarter of a billion dollars in damages,” Hicks said. “Hydrostatic and sheer pressure on dam surfaces, whether concrete or earthen, don’t take a day off. And, unlike a bridge that is failing where a road can be closed, there’s no “closing” of a river’s flow. A river’s gonna do what a river’s gonna do.”