Thoughts From Engineers: Dam Management in the 21st Century: Collaborative and Community-Based
The breach of the Edenville Dam in Michigan, which sent floodwater over the downstream Midland Dam and forced thousands to evacuate on May 19, 2020, tragically captures the catastrophic risk posed by aging dams with absentee or financially strapped dam owners and a history of neglect. Within a short amount of time, floodwaters bypassed the spillways, drained the lakes and caused millions in property damage downstream.
As we now know, this particular set of conditions could be replicated in countless other parts of the country. A dam built in the last century, privately owned, behind in repairs and with a record of delinquency and/or mismanagement—what else is new? According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), more than 15,000 dams across the United States are rated with high hazard-potential status, and nearly 12,000 are rated at significant hazard potential. More than 50 percent of the country’s 90,000 dams are in private ownership.
In the months leading up to the collapse of the Edenville Dam, the Four Lakes Task Force (FLTF), a special assessment district organized under Michigan law in 2019, was in negotiations to purchase the dams. The group was formed on the initiative of property owners who were concerned about the deteriorating state of the dams under the private ownership of Boyce HydroPower. The Task Force performed flood-inundation studies, hired engineers and was poised to take ownership of the four regional dams in June 2020 when Edenville breached in May. When effective systems for the oversight and repair of aging water infrastructure are badly needed, and the resources of state agencies are stretched thin, collaborative strategies driven by local initiative may be one solution.
A Community in Michigan Steps Up
The FLTF was organized under Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act with delegated authority from Midland and Gladwin counties to manage the dams and associated lakes. Since the breach, the FLTF is expanding on earlier flood studies, preparing to design for more-resilient structures, and working closely with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and other state and federal agencies to fund immediate and future needs such as dam stabilization, erosion mitigation and ultimately the cost of massive dam reconstruction. The estimated market value of property within the FLTF’s district boundaries is $800 million.
The Growth of Special Districts
Special districts organized for a defined purpose such as drainage, water and sanitation have been around for a long time. They differ in terms of statutory purpose and scope of delegated authority, process of formation, and mode of governance. These districts can be prime examples of highly effective grass-roots democracies, frequently drawing from a base of resident landowners to take positions on governing boards. (The board of FLTF consists of representatives from the area’s lake associations as well as two commissioners, one from each county.)
Under the best circumstances, these units of government can assume a leadership role within a watershed or around a lake or flowage, collaborate with regional agencies, and spearhead a range of projects. As special units of government, they can use taxing authority to finance projects. They’re also in a far better position than private owners to qualify for and receive state and federal grants.
Local, Focused and Proactive
Wisconsin’s public inland lake and rehabilitation districts are a special-purpose unit of government organized under Chapter 33 (Public Inland Waters) of Wisconsin’s statutory code. State law gives these units of government power to make contracts, levy taxes, pass ordinances and own property such as dams. Of the 242 districts in the state, roughly 20 percent own and manage dams. Capitalizing on their ability to qualify for state grants and raise funds via taxing authority, many of these special districts have maximized their potential. A few lake districts operating in the more urbanized regions of Southeastern Wisconsin are focused and ambitious, skilled at collaboration with other stakeholders, and financially sound.
The Rock-Koshkonong Lake District (RKLD) is one of the largest lake districts in Wisconsin. Its boundaries span three counties and, in collaboration with the state and counties, RKLD manages the 10,500-acre Lake Koshkonong in Jefferson County. In 2004, RKLD took over management of one of the larger dams in the state of Wisconsin, the Indianford Dam, which it owns, operates and maintains. The Lauderdale Lakes Lake Management District, another lake district in Wisconsin, not only operates a dam but has initiated land-use planning in the watershed, monitored and replaced sewage infrastructure, acquired lands, and launched other programs with state funding assistance.
The boundaries of a few other lake districts in the state closely follow the boundaries of their respective watersheds. Some have received millions in state grants to study sources of watershed pollution and implement preventive measures. The strength of these districts comes from the commitment of the people who live there and their ability to work with other units of government to leverage funding and regional resources.
The ideal scale to manage water and its associated infrastructure is obviously the watershed. Some government units—although rare across the country—are organized around this construct and operate effectively in several parts of the country. Ohio, Kansas and Minnesota have watershed districts in their states, which operate dams and use taxing authority to distribute the costs of repair or replacement. A special-purpose unit of government, organized around a set of specific resource issues and managed in part by resident landowners, has an economic interest in maintaining property values, a local presence and a community connection that bodes well for responsible dam management.
It Takes a Village … and Then Some
A few articles written in the aftermath of the Michigan dam incident focused on the need to make greater use of quantified risk methodologies to prioritize dam repair and nationalize standards for state dam safety programs. The 2016 Water Infrastructure Act prioritizes the repair of aging infrastructure, and authorizes creative and collaborative financing tools. All this is necessary and long overdue.
Equally important is the need to find a local entity willing to be an accountable dam owner on a daily basis.
Oversight of our built water infrastructure is a responsibility as important as securing protection from fire, war or other disaster. Special units of government don’t work in isolation but draw on the expertise of regional, state and federal agencies. They capitalize on the benefits—financial and otherwise—that come from working with key partners and pooling resources at multiple scales. Most importantly, they function as a primary point of contact: the “watchful” resident landowner, flagging issues and providing momentum to take action when necessary.