Dam Disaster · USA

Michigan Dam failures: New Warnings for India’s Dam Safety

On Tuesday, May 19, 2020 evening following two days of heavy (4-7 inches) rains, Edinville Dam breached at 1740 and downstream Sanford dam overflowed at 1900 hours, leading to highest ever water level in downstream towns, leading to evacuation of over 10 000 people, besides massive damage, including to roads, bridges, buildings and crops. Both were earthen dams, Edinville dam famously did not have sufficient spillway capacity to pass even half the PMF (Probable Maximum Flood) it was expected to get. USA has much better dam safety situations legally, institutionally and practically that we in India have, and yet this happened where problems were known. As India awaits in the South West Monsoon 2020, there is lot we need to learn here and worry about our dams.

Map from Four Lakes Task Force Report

The Disaster The Tittabawassee River on which Edinville (reservoir area 2600 acres) and Sanford (1569 acres) were situated had flows of one in 500-year flood downstream from Sanford dam, flooding Edinville, Sanford and Midland downtown in Michigan, when the state was fighting one in 100 year pandemic Covid 19, as Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer said over television on that fateful night. The Tittabawassee River in Midland surpassed the previous record of 33.89 feet (the river flood level is 24 feet) on Wednesday, which was set during a major flood in the city in 1986. The river water level crested at 35.05 feet around 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, though earlier it was forecast to reach 38 ft.[i] The new water level was still the highest ever surpassing previous high by 1.16 ft.

At 5:30 a.m., the Tittabawassee River, a tributary of the Saginaw River (which flows into Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes on border between Canada and USA) had broken the record of 33.9 feet set during a flood event in 1986. At 12:45 p.m. Wednesday, the river level was 35.013 feet and rising.[ii] Nasa has provided satellite images of the disaster.[iii]

“In the 1986 flood, it was considered a 100-year flood,” Midland city manager Brad Kaye said. “Current flood is predicted to be the equivalent of a 500-year flood.”

Gov. Whitmer declared[iv] a state of emergency for one county. Both the Edenville and Sanford Dams breached (though later it was revealed that the dam did overflow, but did not breach) May 19, 2020 night, the governor said in a news release, and urged residents to evacuate the affected areas in Midland County immediately. Downtown Midland was expected to be under 9 feet of water next day. Whitmer said in a news conference. “We are anticipating an historic high water level.” Mark Bone, Chairman of the Midland County Board of Commissioners, said about 3,500 homes and 10,000 people have so far been affected by the evacuation notices. No deaths or injuries have so far been reported, he said. Live video of the Edinville dam breach is available.[v]

Edenville Dam, spanning the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Tobacco Rivers is about 225 kms north of Detroit, and the Sanford Dam, about 11.26 kms downriver. Midland city with population of 42000 is 12.9 km downstream of Sanford dam. Dow Chemical Co.’s main plant sits on the city’s riverbank. Emergency responders went door-to-door early Tuesday morning warning residents living near the Edenville Dam of the rising water. Some residents were able to return home, only to be told to leave again following the dam’s breach several hours later. The evacuations included the towns of Edenville, Sanford and parts of Midland.

Earlier on Monday, the National Weather Service had warned of flash flood warning for south-central Gladwin County along the Tittabawassee River below Secord Dam, just upstream of the Midland county. Just after 3 pm Monday, Gladwin County dispatch reported high flows being passed through Secord and Smallwood Dams on the Tittabawassee River in Gladwin County.[vi]

Two lawsuits seeking class-action status over the dam failure were filed Friday, with one suit focusing on the dam’s owners and managers, and another encompassing the dam owners, its manager and the state of Michigan. Both lawsuits seeking upwards of $5 million in damages were filed in the federal district court in Detroit.[vii]

It is not clear what advance action was taken at Edinville dam following these warnings and rainfall starting Sunday. Considering that the dam was known to be vulnerable, one expected that action would have been taken to lower the risk at the Edinville dam. [For salient features of Edinville and Sanford Dams, see Annexure 1 below.]

“This incredible damage requires that we hold people responsible, and we are pursuing every line of legal recourse that we can,” Whitmer added[viii]. On May 20, FERC ordered the Boyce company, which also owns the Sanford Dam, to open an independent forensic investigation into the operation of the two failed dams.[ix]

How the Edinville Dam breach happened Lynn Coleman, who has a property close to the Edinville dam has shot a remarkable video that shows the dam breach process. “There was a low spot in the dike and it was obvious that was going to be the point of the breach,” Coleman said on Saturday. “We stood there maybe five to 10 minutes, and it starting spitting water from the middle. Next thing you know, the mudslide happened.”

Dave Petley, landslide expert at the University of Sheffield (UK) has shared three blogs on the Edinville dam breach so far[x]. Petley interprets the Edinville Dam Breach video: “I think the video shows that the crest of the dam has deformed and dipped, creating a depression through which water has started to flow.  In other words, the video starts with the dam wall undergoing the early stages of failure, which in turn has allowed a small amount of overtopping. The Edenville Dam failure then develops apace.  The slope fails rapidly, initially forming a large toe bulge and there is major deformation at the crest… the dam appears to have undergone a slope failure; a failure of its integrity.  This should never occur, and to me it suggests that the problems at the Edenville Dam went further than known issues with the spillway.”

Petley rejects the possibility of engineered failure: “this was not an engineered failure – in other words, it was not planned.  There was some discussion on Twitter and in the comments that this was the failure of a fuse plug – i.e. a designed failure point that would release water to prevent overtopping.  I can find no evidence that Edenville Dam had a fuse plug, and I do not think that a fuse plug failure would behave in the way shown in the video… I would be surprised if a fuse plug is intended to leave this type of catastrophic breach… I favour the interpretation that high pore water pressures, and a loss of unsaturated conditions, through the dam volume drove the failure.  There are some indications in the video that high pore water conditions were present in the lower part of the structure.”

Petley also refers to Climate change induced increased in PMF at such dams: “These structures, worldwide, are going to need a substantial upgrade to cope with that increase in rainfall, and that’s going to be very expensive.  In the interim we will see more failures of this type.”

Michigan state officials have said years of disinvestment in infrastructure combined with heavy rains and high winds were factors in the 96-year-old dam’s failure. The dam owners have acknowledged years of regulatory concerns about the Edenville infrastructure that predated May 19’s heavy rains and wave action that saturated an earthen dike at the east end of Edenville and washed out about 900 feet of the dam.[xi]

Edinville Dam with breached wall

Dow Chemical Company The Dow Chemical Company, headquartered in Midland, Michigan, released an updated statement on Wednesday, saying that while there were confirmed flood waters that mixed with an on-site pond used for storm water, brine system and groundwater remediation – the material from the pond commingling with flood waters “does not create any threat to residents or environmental damage.” The critics, however are skeptical of Dow’s claims considering the company’s track record.[xii]

The Dow facility stands surrounded by flood waters in this aerial photograph taken after dams failed in Midland, Michigan, U.S., on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

The concern downriver, according to Allen Burton, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan, is that contaminated sediments on the river floor could be stirred up by the floodwaters, spreading pollution downstream and over the riverbanks.

There is also a tiny nuclear research reactor on the Dow site. Overnight, Dow filed an “unusual event” report with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission warning of potential flooding at the site. But the reactor had already been shut down because of the coronavirus crisis, and there were no indications of flood damage on May 20.[xiii]

Michigan Dams The two dams involved in the floods in Michigan on Tuesday are among at least 170 dams in the state that are classified as having a “high” hazard potential by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, meaning that a failure could result in the loss of life. An additional 151 dams are rated with a hazard potential of “significant” based on their potential for economic and environmental damage. That means that nearly a third of Michigan’s 1,059 dams have the highest hazardous ratings. Map of Michigan dams in NYT.[xiv] The state’s dam safety unit has three full-time employees who manage more than 1,000 dams.[xv]

Michan Dams Map from NYT

American Rivers wrote: Dam removal can be the best way to address a dam that poses a safety risk. There are tens of thousands of dams across the country that no longer serve the purpose they were built to provide and whose removal could eliminate the cost and liability associated with owning a dam. Unless they are well maintained, their condition only gets worse every year. The most cost-effective and permanent way to deal with obsolete, unsafe dams is to remove them.[xvi]

Boyce Hydro The company that owned all four lakes and related infrastructure in the area is Boyce Hydro. According to federal documents, Boyce Hydro insisted there was little chance that a catastrophic flood could happen. “Boyce Hydro states that the probability of such a flood occurring in the next 5 to 10 years ranges from 5 to 10 in one million,” one report said. Late Wednesday, Boyce Hydro issued a statement expressing distress over what had transpired. It said the company’s operators had made efforts to lower water levels and prepare for the incoming rain, but that a combination of rainfall and high winds reached extraordinary levels.[xvii]

A road collapsed due to flood water is seen in this aerial photograph taken after dams failed in Midland, Michigan, U.S., on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Emily Elconin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

FERC revoked Edinville license in Sept 2018 The Edinville dam, however has complicated history since 1999 when USA’s national regulator, Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission (FERC) asked Edinville owner to increase the Edinville Dam’s spillway capacity equal to the Probable Maximum Flood (PMF) or the likely worst flood that the dam is could experience. That almost two-decade long saga saw FERC accuse Boyce Hydro indulging in several violations, slow-walking and stone walling every effort of FERC. Its shocking as to why did FERC waited for so many years before finally revoking the generation license of the Edinville dam owner company. Had FERC taken more stringent stand against the company, may be this disaster could have been avoided. [For detailed dateline for developments related to legal process around Edinville Dam, plz see Annexure 2 below.]

FERC order of Sept 10, 2018 concludes (Para 58)[xviii]: “In sum, Boyce Hydro has, for more than a decade, knowingly and willfully refused to comply with major aspects of its license and the Commission’s regulatory regime, with the result that public safety has been put at risk… The record demonstrates that there is no reason to believe that Boyce Hydro will come into compliance; rather, the licensee has displayed a history of obfuscation and outright disregard of its obligations… Within 15 days of the date of this order, the Boyce Hydro must permanently disable all generating equipment in the project’s powerhouse and file written notification with the Secretary of the Commission, providing the date and time that generation ceased, the generator meter reading at that time, and a photograph of the reading on the meter. Following revocation of the license, the Commission’s jurisdiction will end, and authority over the site will pass to Michigan DEQ (Department of Environment Quality) for dam safety regulatory purposes.”

The Edenville Dam was rated in unsatisfactory condition in 2018 by the state. The Sanford Dam received a fair condition rating. Both dams are in the process of being sold as per process described in Four Lakes Task Force Report of 2019.[xix] [xx] The designs for a remediation of the hazard at Edinville Dam were being prepared, with construction anticipated in the period 2021 to 2023.[xxi]

The existence of over a thousand lake front properties complicated the matter. These properties would lose huge value if the lake behind the Edinville dam were to be lowered down following FERC revoking the license. In January 2020 came the news that the Four Lakes Task Force signed a $9.4 million purchase agreement for the acquisition of Wixom, Sanford, Secord and Smallwood lakes and their dams from Boyce Trusts.[xxii]

A bridge was destroyed by floodwaters in Edenville Township near Midland.Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

Lessons for India Like in case of other recent dam disasters of US[xxiii] that SANDRP has been writing about, there is a lot that India needs to learn from the Michigan Dam Disaster of May 2020.

  • The first point to note is that both Edinville and Sanford are earthen dams, like thousands of India’s dams. Such dams are clearly more vulnerable.
  • Secondly, issue of spillway capacity of dams able to pass PMF affects large number of dams, since they have been designed at different points of time with different criteria and a lot of changes have occurred since those designs were approved or not. Now that the PMF has already gone up hugely with increasing rainfall intensities in changing climate, and when we have not even assessed what impact climate change has.
  • USA has a clearly defined system of assessing, certifying the dams that come under Federal or State domains, which we do not have. In this case, US system too failed to stop an avoidable disaster, but the existence of a system will help them, hopefully in quickly fixing the gap. When no such credible system or clearly defined code exists as in case of India, we have bigger task. Our Dam Safety Bill, the first step in that direction is still stuck in the Parliamentary approval process for over a decade, and in case, even if passed, that act is not going to help too much for lack of credible and independent process devoid of conflict of interest.

Hope India learns before we experience more disasters. Unfortunately, the experience so far with Tiware dam disaster of July 2019, the latest one, does not inspire confidence.

SANDRP (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

Annexure 1. Salient Features of Edinville Project

The project is located in Gladwin and Midland counties, Michigan. The Edenville Project consists of earthen embankments, known as the Edenville dam, totaling about 6,600 feet in length and having a maximum height of 54.5 feet. The dam spans both the Tittabawassee and Tobacco Rivers creating a 2,600-acre reservoir known as Wixom Lake with a gross storage capacity of about 40,000 acre-feet and a 49-mile-long shoreline at full pool. There is a 50-foot-long intake leading to the powerhouse located at the dam on the eastern side of the project. The powerhouse contains two 2.4-MW Francis-type turbine generator units for a total installed capacity of 4.8 MW. The project creates a 0.4-mile-long bypassed reach on the Tobacco River that extends from the dam to the point where the Tobacco River meets the Tittabawassee River. The project also includes two reinforced concrete multiple arch spillways. The 69-foot-wide, 39-foot-high Tittabawassee spillway (also referred to as the Edenville spillway) is located on the eastern side of the project and contains three Tainter gates and two low-level sluice gates. The Tobacco spillway is about 72 feet long and 72 feet wide with a crest height of about 40 feet, and contains three steel Tainter gates located on the western side of the project.

The FERC license included a requirement to operate lake between two sets of water levels. The summer water operation is within 0.3 above and 0.4 feet below of the normal pool elevation of 675.8 feet. The winter water operation is 672.8 feet. The winter drawdown may begin from December 15 and must be completed by January 15. Lake level is to return to summer operating level when water temperature reaches 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The minimum flow that must be released into the bypassed reach of the Tobacco River is 40 cubic feet per second (cfs) from October 1 through March 31 and 66 cfs April 1 and September 30. All minimum flows shall be continuous. There is not a reference to minimum flow through the Tittabawassee River, this is estimated to be 125 cfs. Section 402 of the FERC license references the water temperature and dissolved oxygen requirements.

Sanford Dam[xxiv]

Sanford Dam May 20 After Edenville Dam failed n Tittabawassee River flooded Water flowed over the top of it through the night Kaytie Boomer The Bay City Times via AP

The maximum height of the Sanford Dam is 36 feet. State of Michigan law requires this dam to have spillway capacity to convey the 200-year storm. The Sanford Dam was built to provide headwater level control for the purpose of hydro-electric power generation and received its original license from FERC in 1987. The FERC license is to operate the reservoir/lake between two sets of water levels. The summer water operation is within 0.3 above and 0.4 feet below of the normal pool elevation of 630.8 feet. The winter water operation is 627.8 feet. The winter drawdown may begin December 15 and must be completed by January 15. The lake is to be returned to summer operating level when surface water temperature reaches 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The minimum flow requirement through the dam is 210 cfs (cubic feet/second), except during walleye spawning season when it is 650 cfs. Section 407 of the FERC license references the water temperature and dissolved oxygen requirements.

Sanford dam seen overflowing here

ANNEXURE 2. Timeline related to Edinville Dam and Boyce company[xxv]

Oct 16, 1998: FERC issued a license for the 4.8 MW hydro power at Edenville Project

Jan 4, 1999 FERC’s Office of Energy Projects, Division of Dam Safety and Inspections, Chicago Regional Engineer (Regional Engineer) issued a letter to the prior licensee of the project, Wolverine Power Corporation (Wolverine), describing the project’s need to increase spillway capacity as the Commission’s primary concern.

2015 FERC staff noted that Boyce Hydro had performed unauthorized repairs to the right Tobacco abutment spillway wall in violation of the FERC regulations. The wall was damaged and the company repaired it without following FERC regulations.

Oct 27, 2016 Boyce Hydro proceeded with unauthorized repairs to the left Tobacco abutment spillway wall, again in violation of the FERC regulations.

June 15, 2017: FERC Compliance Order detailed Boyce Hydro’s long-standing violations of various terms and conditions of its license and the Commission’s regulations, as well as staff’s multi-year effort to bring Boyce Hydro in compliance. Specifically, the Compliance Order stated that Boyce Hydro: (1) failed to increase the spillway capacity of the project to be able to pass the probable maximum flood (PMF); 5 (2) performed unauthorized dam repairs; (3) performed unauthorized earth-moving activities; (4) failed to file an adequate Public Safety Plan; (5) failed to construct approved recreation facilities; (6) failed to acquire all necessary project property rights; and (7) failed to comply with the Commission’s 1999 Order approving Boyce Hydro’s Water Quality Monitoring Plan. The Commission’s primary concern has been the licensee’s longstanding failure to address the project’s inadequate spillway capacity, which is designed to pass only approximately 50 percent of the PMF.

The spillway capacity needing to be able to pass PMF flows from: FERC Engineering Guidelines for the Evaluation of Hydropower Projects, Chapter 2: Selecting and Accommodating Inflow Design Floods for Dams at 2-3 (August 2015)[xxvi]. (India does not have any such legally enforceable code.)

Nov 20, 2017:  FERC order requiring Boyce Hydro to cease generating at the Edenville Hydroelectric Project. It provided a detailed outline of the licensee’s failure to comply with specific requirements set out in the Compliance Order and the two additional dam safety directives, emphasizing yet again the Commission’s public safety concern with the licensee’s failure to address the PMF issue. It noted that Commission staff had spent more than 13 years trying to work with Boyce Hydro to address its failure to meet the PMF standards and had granted the company two extensions of the relevant deadlines set out in the Compliance Order.

Dec 1/28, 2017 Boyce Hydro filed an emergency motion for stay of the Cease Generation Order

Dec 20, 2017: Boyce Hydro Power, LLC (Boyce Hydro or licensee) filed a request for rehearing

Feb 7, 2018 the D.C. Circuit granted Boyce Hydro’s motion for a stay, in part, and stayed the portion of the Cease Generation Order that required Boyce Hydro to cease generation

Feb 15, 2018: FERC order denying rehearing; Concurrent with this Order Denying Rehearing, FERC issued a separate order proposing revocation of Boyce Hydro’s license for the Edenville Project. Boyce Hydro states that the probability of PMF occurring in the next 5 to 10 years ranges from 5 to 10 in one million.

Sept 10, 2018 FERC’s ORDER REVOKING LICENSE. FERC has no regulating powers over the Edinville dam 15 days after that. State Environment Quality department than takes over. State requires only that the dam be able to handle half of PMF.

Oct 18, 2018 FERC denied several motions to stay the Sept 10, 2018 order

Jan. 31, 2020 the state knew that the dam failed even to meet state safety standards. Luke Trumble, dam safety engineer was apparently convinced that it did not meet the flood capacity requirements of the state, which are half as stringent as the federal standards. “Assuming this stands, the dam would be about 4,000-5,000 [cubic feet per second] short of passing [the state standard] with no freeboard at the low point in the earthen embankments,” Trumble wrote[xxvii]. Freeboard is the distance between the water’s surface and the top of a dam’s containment wall.

April 9, 2020 Even with that knowledge, the state granted dam owner Boyce Hydro’s permit request to raise Wixom Lake levels April 9, action the department has argued was required under the court-ordered lake levels and permitting laws. Such permit was denied in 2018 & 2019.

May 1, 2020 The environmental department’s lawsuit was meant to address “past illegal lowering” Wixom lake levels in the winters of 2018 and 2019 that resulted in the deaths of freshwater mussels and to avoid future dramatic consequences.


1. May 26, 2020: Michigan Dam Safety Unit has three persons: Two engineers and their boss. “Midland’s flood disaster shines a spotlight on the aging, crumbling condition of dams in Michigan, and the limited financial ability — or will — and enforcement teeth to do anything about it… Michigan has more than 2,500 dams, ranging from small berms making tiny ponds at hunting cabins Up North to larger hydro-dams like the Edenville and Sanford dams… Some 1,061 of Michigan’s dams are regulated by the state — many because they are over 6 feet in height and hold back 5 acres of water or more; some because of circuit court orders establishing lake levels. Another 99 Michigan dams that generate hydropower are managed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission… “The key issue here is enforcement,” said Jim Hegarty, past president of the Michigan Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He authored a 2009 Report Card on Michigan’s dams, giving them an overall D grade. “We don’t have a problem with knowledge, necessarily; we don’t usually get surprised by this stuff. We need better enforcement on serious potential situations.”

The Report Card for Michigan’s dams was updated by ASCE for 2018. While the grade improved to a C-minus because of a number of poor dams being removed across Michigan since 2009, the report noted two-thirds of the state’s dams still were older than their typical 50-year design life. “In the next five years, about 80% of Michigan’s dams will be over 50 years old”.
“Michigan’s dam safety staffing is lower than the national average, said Mark Ogden, a technical consultant with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, a Lexington, Kentucky-based nonprofit representing state regulators, dam owners and engineers… Michigan also spends less than most other states on dam safety, according to the association. The average U.S. state spends about $695 per dam in safety regulation; Michigan spends about $374 per dam… About 70% of Michigan’s dams, more than 1,750 of them, are privately owned — “one owner, or a lake association, or a few homeowners,” he said.”

2. May 26 2020 “Why did the dam continue to operate even though it was out of compliance with flood prevention standards? … An exchange in 2011 between Boyce and Sanford lakeshore residents sheds light on why these safety risks were never resolved. The owner of Boyce, Lee Mueller requested the lakeshore property owners pay the $83,000 needed to repair the dam structure and to return the lake to its normal level. Lakeshore residents argued instead that Boyce pay for the repair since the company made revenues from the hydroelectric power generated from the dam. In response, Mueller threatened to drain the lake permanently if the property owners refused to pay up. Boyce was counting on Midland County to intervene since the county would lose millions in property tax revenue if residents were forced to move away after the lake was drained. This episode reveals the utter lack of concern about the imminent danger of flooding caused by Michigan’s aging dams. Only profits entered into the calculations of Boyce and the local county officials… what happened to the Edenville dam after September 2018 when Boyce’s license was revoked by the FERC? Why was nothing done to repair and maintain the dam which would have prevented last week’s catastrophe from happening? … Submitted on the same day was another similar but lengthier letter from heads of local lake associations, including David Kepler, president of the Sanford Lake Preservation Association. Kepler was a major figure at Dow Chemical for 40 years, where he was the Executive Vice President, Chief Sustainability Officer and Chief Information Officer, and previously was part of the US National Infrastructure Advisory Council on infrastructure and homeland security under President George W. Bush… What’s behind the collapse of the Edenville dam and the damage of thousands of homes is the decades-long bipartisan neglect of the safety issues regarding dams on both the state and federal levels…. According to a study published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, on average, each state inspector is responsible for about 200 dams. In Oklahoma and Iowa, there were only three inspectors for their 4621 and 3911 dams respectively. There is also a nationwide lack of emergency responses to the high hazard dams. Alabama does not have a dam safety program, while no emergency action plans exist for 20 percent of the high hazard dams…. From the same study, the total estimated cost to repair all the high hazard dams is about $45 billion, and about $71 billion to repair all dams in the country—only a minor fraction of the trillions of dollars used on military expenses and the bailout of Wall Street during the pandemic. The collapse of the Edenville dam is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one, a result of decades of attacks on critical infrastructure.”

3. At least three different proposed class action lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts on behalf of residents and business that are claiming losses that resulted from the dam failure.

4. In a letter addressed to Lee Mueller, Boyce Hydro Power LLC managing member, on May 20, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered Boyce Hydro to fully lower the reservoirs behind Sanford Dam, Smallwood Dam and Secord Dam — all dams under FERC jurisdiction — in a safe manner as flows recede. Boyce Hydro is also being directed to perform a safety inspection of the dams within three days after the flows recede. After the completion of the inspections, Boyce Hydro must provide a copy of the reports to FERC within three days, but must also provide a verbal summary of findings to the Chicago Regional Engineer immediately upon completion. “Boyce must also maintain fully lowered reservoirs and develop an interim plan to safely pass flows until a safe reservoir elevation can be established and implemented,” the letter states. The letter also directed Boyce Hydro to immediately begin formation of a fully-independent forensic investigation team to focus on the three dams. The team must consist of dam safety experts “well versed” in the following disciplines: hydraulics and hydrology; geotechnical engineering; structural engineering; reservoir operations; emergency action planning; organizational/human factors. The team members must not have worked on any of the Boyce Hydro Projects in the past.
In a press release on Tuesday (May 26), the Four Lakes Task Force (FLTF) announced the its acquisition of the lake-system and its dams will not take place under the terms that were negotiated with Boyce Hydro this past winter. In December 2019, Four Lakes Task Force signed a $9.4 million purchase agreement to acquire Wixom, Sanford, Secord and Smallwood lakes, along with their dams from Boyce Trusts. The sale was expected to close in January 2022.

5. Speaking in Midland on Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said she has sent a letter to EGLE directing the department to investigate what caused the Edenville and Sanford dams to fail. Fielding a question from a reporter about whether the flooding could have been avoided, and if it was a mistake to tell the dam owners to raise the water level, Whitmer said it is important that EGLE’s investigation be done. [It has detailed information about the suit filed by state against unauthorised lowering of reservoir level in 2018 and 2019 winters.}

6. May 27, 2020 Bruce Feinberg has noted the similarity with the failure of the Kelly Barnes Dam on 6 November 1977 at Toccoa in Georgia, USA.  This was another earthen dam that breached during heavy rainfall, killing 39 people.  The USGS investigated this failure, and the report is online.  The report makes shocking reading – the dam was poorly documented and in a very poor state of repair at the time of failure. Photographs from 1973 show that a slope failure in the face of the dam had already occurred. The USGS report hypothesises that the breach may have been caused by a further slope failure in the downstream face of the dam:

[Slope failure] appears to be a distinct possibility, particularly on the downstream slope when the previous slope failure is considered along with the possibility of the development of tension cracks upslope of the previous failure together with a computed factor of safety that is marginal. The long period of rain would have saturated tension cracks, if they existed, and the entire downstream slope would have become essentially saturated and even more susceptible to failure. A local downstream slope failure similar to that observed in 1973 could have caused limited breaching allowing localized overtopping. This concept would corroborate the hydraulic computations.

This proposed mechanism of failure is indeed similar to that of the Edenville Dam.

The aftermath of the Sanford dam failure in Michigan

7. May 29, 2020 In a letter from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission dated Thursday, an official wrote that “initial observations” found “erosion of the downstream slopes” at Secord Dam, which is upstream from two dams that were breached, causing widespread damage and prompting the evacuation of more than 10,000 residents. John Zygaj, a FERC regional engineer, mentioned the Secord’s condition in his letter while directing Boyce Hydro’s Lee Mueller to file an incident report by June 16. z
– The Smallwood Dam was damaged even though Boyce Hydro officials indicated to the FERC it had no “consequential” harm, according to the federal agency that oversees the dam. On May 20, the FERC ordered Mueller, who is based in Las Vegas, do an inspection of the Sanford, Smallwood and Secord dams three days after the water receded. It’s not clear the status of that inspection.

8. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer earlier this week directed the state of Michigan to investigate what caused two Midland County dams to fail and to review dam safety throughout the state. Now, some legislators are calling for an independent investigation into the matter. State Rep. Roger Hauck, a Republican from Union Township near Mount Pleasant, on Friday, May 29, joined some of his colleagues in calling on Whitmer to hire an independent investigator to look into the failed dams, rather than the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). “For the water crisis in Flint, independent investigators were hired to examine the catastrophe, as we did not trust the state Department of Environmental Quality to investigate its own mismanagement of the crisis,” Hauck said in a statement. “The disaster involving the Edenville and Sanford dams warrants the same method — the people of Midland County and the surrounding area deserve a fair investigation.”

9. Safety experts who we spoke to say the state should have moved faster to protect the public against a dam with a 25-year history of noncompliance and safety warnings. (How weak regulations failed to prevent catastrophe at notorious Midland dam) “When there’s public safety at stake, you don’t have conversations. You actually do something about it,” said Hiba Baroud, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University who specializes in risk analysis of infrastructure.
– “Factor in wave run up/set up, and the deficiency increases significantly,” Trumble wrote. “No big surprise there, but I wanted to have the calcs to support that assumption before EGLE makes a final determination on hydraulic adequacy of the dam.”

That finding, coupled with years of federal reports, should have compelled the state regulators to take temporary action to protect public safety until a permanent solution could be reached, said Baroud. She said operating the dam at a lower lake level could “allow for these extreme [rain] situations to occur without resulting in a disaster.”

“You have to prioritize public safety,” Baroud said. “You have to take action, not wait, or have conversations about it. Just take action.”

In a letter sent Thursday to Boyce Hydro a regional engineer with FERC noted that “initial observations noted significant flood erosion damage of Smallwood Dam and some erosion of the downstream slopes of Secord Dam.”

FERC officials have directed Boyce to submit an incident report by June 16 detailing recent operating conditions at the Secord, Smallwood and Sanford dams.

10. June 1, 2020 A congressional committee has asked the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy for additional information on the Edenville Dam, which broke May 19, flooding the Midland area and forcing the evacuation of more than 10,000 people.

The U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce asked in a Friday letter for more details about what actions Michigan took or didn’t take to secure the Edenville Dam after jurisdiction was shifted to the state from the federal government in 2018. It asks about the state’s evaluation of the dam in the past two years and any regulatory or legal action taken in recent months against the dam owner Boyce Hydro. Federal lawmakers sent a similar letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to discern its actions surrounding the dam prior to 2018.
Among the questions asked of Clark in the letter are ones pertaining to state communication with federal authorities about the dam; the state’s perceived obligations in relation to the dam; any legal and regulatory efforts the state took since 2018; and what action was taken after the state found in January that the dam didn’t meet flood capacity standards.

11. (This post is a highly abridged version of a more in-depth report on the events that led to the failure of the Edenville Dam. Watch the Mackinac Center website for more details on this soon-to-be-published report.) The Edenville Dam has survived heavier rains in the past. But on May 19, rising water levels in the Tittabawassee River and Wixom Lake scoured out a section of the dam, which then washed downriver and over the Sanford Dam. Boyce Hydro claims it acted quickly on May 15, ahead of the storm, to once again begin drawing down lake levels. But clearly, it was unable to draw water levels down sufficiently to hold the flood waters back. [Does this article represent the interests of the Boyce Hydro?]

12. Sanford Lake residents now face yet another threat: erosion. On June 4 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered the owner of the dams to stabilize the shorelines to prevent erosion that could endanger homes. FERC told Boyce to hire engineers to study erosion along Sanford Lake that had created a “steep bank.” FERC said Boyce must pay for stabilizing the shoreline near “any residences or structures that are in jeopardy of additional damage.” FERC also said the loss of the lake, replaced with a far-faster moving river, could lead to even more erosion, especially if there is more rain.

13. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday she’s seeking a federal major disaster declaration from President Donald Trump to help recoup some $200 million in damages to more than 2,500 buildings from floods last month caused when two dams failed. only 8 percent of damaged homes had flood insurance, 150 homes were destroyed, 790 had major damage and public property such as schools and government buildings had $34 million in damages.

14. June 9, 2020 Saying the owner and operator of the failed Edenville Dam “repeatedly put its own profits over the safety of the public,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Tuesday announced a new state lawsuit against Boyce Hydro LLC, seeking likely millions of dollars in damages and response and recovery expenses related to last month’s flooding in Midland County.
– The state’s new lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Ingham County Circuit Court, urges the court to order Boyce Hydro to take immediate steps to shore up the remaining portions of the Edenville Dam on the Tobacco River side of the structure. The dam’s breach has changed the flows of the Tobacco and put strain on the remaining dam portion still holding back a significant amount of water, state officials contend. “Cracks had begun to form on the downstream slope west of the Tobacco spillway and, based on observations from (Boyce’s) chief operator Greg Uhl, the cracks were very deep and approximately 60 feet wide,” the state’s lawsuit complaint states.
– EGLE issued an emergency inspection order May 22, requiring Boyce to secure an engineer to perform an immediate evaluation of the Tobacco side of the dam and report back to the state within two days. The order also required Boyce to have an engineer perform a full inspection of the remaining portions of the entire dam and make recommendations for repairing any deficiencies “that pose a risk of safety to the remaining dam structure.” The lawsuit states Mueller told EGLE officials June 2 that an inspection of the Tobacco side of the Edenville dam would begin “during the week of June 8,” and that a report would be forwarded to EGLE “at some point in the future.”  On June 5, Mueller told EGLE Boyce was “monitoring the cracks on the Tobacco side of the dam.” State officials state in their lawsuit complaint.”If the Tobacco side of the Edenville Dam fails, there could be additional, catastrophic impacts to the people, property and natural resources downstream from the dam in addition to the complete loss of the M-30 (highway) crossing.” The state’s lawsuit also seeks to have Boyce repair damages to the state’s natural resources, clean up discharges of debris and hazardous materials caused by the dam’s failures, and pay civil fines and damages related to the disaster.

15. June 10, 2020 For the first time since the Edenville Dam broke two and a half weeks ago, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy spoke with legislators on what went wrong to lead to the failure and what problems hang on the horizon. It was the first of many scheduled hearings where EGLE explained why the Edenville Dam was rated poorly and yet nothing had been done to avoid catastrophe before it hit. Much of it came down to a lack of resources and man power but many questions still went unanswered during the hearing.

Senate, EGLE Discuss Edenville Dam Failure And Future Preparation

16. June 15, 2020 A federal judge on June 15, 2020 instructed the owners of the failed Edenville Dam to perform an immediate inspection of the structure to determine if it poses a substantial risk to folks downstream of the remaining Tobacco River segment. U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney ordered the immediate inspection after the state alleged the dam company was “slow-walking” the inspection to the detriment of residents who could be harmed by a second breach in the dam.

17. June 18, 2020 Michigan and federal regulators have signed off on six independent experts who will investigate why mid-Michigan’s Edenville and Sanford dams failed in mid-May.  The team, which held its first virtual meeting June 17, 2020, will be paid and contracted by dam owner Boyce Hydro, but were screened and approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The investigation is expected to take 18 months to complete, but the group could issue preliminary reports if there are discoveries that may help the state to mitigate potential failures at other dams, the state environmental department said in a Thursday (June 18) statement.
-John W. France, president of JWF Consulting and expert in engineering consulting and design, will lead the team. Other members include dam engineering expert Irfan A. Alvi, hydromechanics expert Henry T. Falvey, hydraulics structure engineer Steve Higinbotham, water resources expert Arthur C. Miller and geotechnical engineer Jennifer Williams.

18. June 19 2020 A statement from republican party representative from Michigan says that the investigation team is not acceptable as it is not independent team, it has been chosen by the dam owner and also state govt, both of which are charged in cases filed in the court.

19. June 29 2020 Rising water levels in Wixom Lake washed away a 900-foot section of the earthen embankment, and water flowed downriver, swelling Sanford Lake and washing over Sanford Dam.


[i] https://edition.cnn.com/us/live-news/michigan-dam-flooding/index.html, 9:57 p.m. ET, May 20, 2020

[ii] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/flooding-hits-parts-midwest-evacuations-michigan-n1210536

[iii] Muddy Flooding in Michigan (Image from May 20, 2020; Posted May 21, 2020): https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146752/muddy-flooding-in-michigan

[iv] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/19/us/michigan-dam-collapse/index.html

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hc3u_CHVHJ8

[vi] https://nbc25news.com/news/local/high-flows-from-secord-dam-in-gladwin-county-causing-flash-flooding

[vii] https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/05/23/video-shows-edenville-dam-breached-michigan-midland-historic-flooding/5249659002/

[viii] https://abcnews.go.com/US/thousands-evacuate-500-year-flood-destroys-dams-michigan/story?id=70786068

[ix][ix] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/us/michigan-dams.html

[x] https://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/2020/05/20/edenville-dam-1/, https://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/2020/05/21/edenville-dam-failure-2/, https://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/2020/05/22/edenville-dam-breach/

[xi] https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/05/21/state-says-didnt-pressure-boyce-hydro-raise-water-levels-before-dam-failure/5236290002/

[xii] https://www.mlive.com/news/saginaw-bay-city/2020/05/dow-critics-skeptical-of-companys-claim-floodwaters-pose-no-threat-of-contamination.html

[xiii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/climate/michigan-dam-dow-chemical-superfund.html May 20, 2020

[xiv] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/20/us/michigan-flooding-dam-risk.html

[xv] https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/05/23/nessel-disputes-claim-state-litigation-played-role-edenville-dams-failure/5251215002/

[xvi] https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/a-big-dam-problem-the-disaster-in-michigan-and-solutions-for-the-future/

[xvii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/us/michigan-flooding-dams-midland.html

[xviii] http://media.graytvinc.com/documents/EdenvilleDamLicenseRevoked.pdf

[xix] https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/flooding-hits-parts-midwest-evacuations-michigan-70765462

[xx] https://www.abc12.com/content/news/FERC-revokes-license-for-Edenville-Dam-493090991.html

[xxi] https://nbc25news.com/news/local/2018-report-warned-of-dam-failure-if-massive-flood-was-to-happen

[xxii] https://www.ourmidland.com/news/article/Boyce-Hydro-Four-Lakes-Task-Force-sign-dam-14947027.php#photo-18670975

[xxiii] https://sandrp.in/2020/04/27/a-tale-of-two-dam-breaches-spencer-and-tiware/, https://sandrp.in/2017/03/08/oroville-dam-damage-in-us-many-questions/

[xxiv] http://www.four-lakes-taskforce-mi.com/uploads/1/2/3/1/123199575/four_lake_level_study_final_full_report_20190426.pdf

[xxv] https://ferc.gov/whats-new/comm-meet/2018/021518/H-3.pdf

[xxvi] http://www.ferc.gov/industries/hydropower/safety/guidelines/eng-guide/chap2.pdf

[xxvii] https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/05/22/state-found-edenville-dam-failed-safety-standards-four-months-before-flood/5241158002/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.