A Dam Shame

Two large earthen dams breached by heavy rains in mid-May wiped out hundreds of businesses and homes in and near Midland. Damages, estimated at $200 million, have property owners seeking relief through the courts while questioning the role state leaders played in the disaster.
broken road
It Takes A Village: A monumental rain in mid-May flooded a wide swath of central Michigan, wiping out the rural economy in the midst of COVID-19. // Photographs by Seth Herald

For 96 years, the five-story-high Edenville Dam, which straddles the Tittabawassee and Tobacco rivers and is located 15 miles north of Midland in the middle of Michigan, created a 2,600-acre reservoir known as Wixom Lake. Thousands of families built their dream lakefront homes on its 49 miles of shoreline.

On the evening of May 19, however, those cherished settings were impacted tremendously when lake levels disappeared. More than 8 inches of rain fell over a 48-hour period, and rising water levels breached the top of one side of the dam’s earthen embankment. By the next afternoon the dam collapsed, unleashing tens of billions of gallons of water downstream.

Seven miles south of the dam, the torrent of water overwhelmed the three-story-high Sanford Dam, emptying out its 1,250-acre reservoir known as Sanford Lake. What’s more, the nearby village of Sanford was wiped out, hit with 6 feet of swirling lake and river water.

As a result of the historic flood, some 11,000 Gladwin and Midland County residents were evacuated. Homes were flooded and docks, boats, motor vehicles, a state roadway, and multiple bridges were washed away. At noon the next day, the city of Midland was under water as the Tittabawassee River crested at 35 feet. Basements of homes as far south as Saginaw and Bay City were filled with water.

Although it was one of the most spectacular dam failures in state history, miraculously no lives were lost, even as 2,500 homes and businesses were destroyed or severely impacted. Damages are estimated at nearly $200 million. The once tranquil recreational lakes are now barren pits, with trees and other vegetation growing from the crust of the black sediment that remains.

So who, or what, is to blame for the failure of the dams? Was it simply Mother Nature, or was the dam ownership group at fault? Some say another factor may have been Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who ordered the dam owners to raise the lake levels prior to the storm.

In concert with Michigan’s Department of  Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE; formerly known as the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ), the state was engaged in a confrontational relationship with the owner of the dams, Boyce Hydro, which exacerbated the maintenance neglect on the dams, writes Chris Krug, publisher of The Center Square, formerly Watchdog.org, a national news website that reports on state and local government from a conservative perspective.

“Rather than working with Boyce Hydro by assisting it with grants and low-cost loans in order to protect public safety and the environment, EGLE and the state attorney general instead opted to litigate against the private company even after an EGLE inspection two years ago rated one of the dams in ‘fair condition,’ ” writes Krug.

Since the failures of the dams, nearly two dozen lawsuits have been filed by affected property and business owners in federal courts in Detroit and Grand Rapids, as well as state courts in Lansing and Gladwin and Midland counties. Targets of the legal actions are Boyce Hydro Power, the operators of the dams; Lee W. Mueller and several family members, who are heirs to three trust funds that own the dams; the State of Michigan; Gladwin and Midland counties; and even a nonprofit homeowners group, Four Lakes Task Force, which is working with state and county officials to take over the dams and preserve the lakes.

In August, Boyce Hydro filed for bankruptcy protection. In addition to the two failed dams, the company owns two smaller ones upstream, known as Secord and Smallwood. They suffered damage from the torrential rain and subsequent flooding, but didn’t fail. All four dams produced hydroelectricity for sale to Jackson-based Consumers Energy, the state’s largest utility. They’re among about 100 hydroelectric dams in Michigan that are regulated by the federal government.

The four man-made lakes are home to 8,516 cottages and homeowners. The lakes have since been drained of water as engineers assess the damages and investigators try to determine the cause of the dam failures. As a result, communities that have been impacted by the flooding, including those in Gladwin County, are still reeling from the damage as the property owners around three of the lakes were major economic drivers for the mostly rural area.

David Crawford, a commercial banker from Madison Heights who lost two cottages his family owned on Wixom Lake, says while many of the homeowners, including himself, lacked flood insurance, he’s more concerned about the local population.

“You look at the socioeconomic impact to the area, how devastating it is to businesses, the tax base — there are thousands of homes on that lake, and I heard there were 900 homes destroyed or severely damaged,” he says. “The properties are worth nothing now. There are so many people up there living in trailers because they have nowhere else to go. That was their home. That’s not an area of wealth; they live on fixed incomes and they can’t afford to rebuild.”

The properties are worth nothing now. There are so many people up there living in trailers because they have nowhere else to go. … That’s not an area of wealth; they live on fixed incomes and they can’t afford to rebuild.  — David Crawford

For those living around Wixom Lake, their first inkling of trouble from their slice of paradise came just before winter set in two years ago. Without any warning, the water level in front of their homes dropped 8 feet, leaving docks dangling and sea walls exposed above the muddy lake bottom.

Without authorization or permits to do so, Boyce Hydro had temporarily drained the lake, then refilled it in the spring of 2019. At the time, the power company said it took the action to prevent dangerous ice buildup on the dam. State and county officials said the dam operators drained the lake to avoid paying for ice control methods and the technology components dams install to prevent ice buildups.

Last winter, Boyce Hydro again lowered the lake level by 8 feet, despite court orders not to do so and a state denial of a permit to lower the lake level.

Lawrence A. Kogan of New York City, a lawyer who represents the power company, says the business owners had to lower the water to complete repairs on the gates of the dam to minimize ice damage. Until two years ago, while the dam was still producing hydroelectricity, it was under federal supervision and wasn’t allowed to lower the lake level more than 3 feet.

This spring, after Boyce refilled the lake to its summer level, and three weeks before the flood in May, Nessel sued Boyce Hydro and its owners over the drawdowns of the water level in Wixom Lake. At the time, Nessel accused Boyce and its owners of causing environmental damage to surrounding wetlands and streams and their ecosystems. In addition, the attorney general said the drawdowns killed millions of the 15 species of mussels that inhabit the lake, including the Snuffbox, which is on the federal and state endangered species list and is protected by Michigan law.

The timing of the attorney general’s lawsuit, three weeks before the dam failures, sparked criticism from homeowners, affected residents, and lawyers involved in several of the lawsuits. They accused Nessel of being more concerned over mussels than public safety. The lawyers blamed the state for ordering Boyce to raise the lake water level, which they say contributed to the dam’s collapse.

In a countersuit, Boyce argued that the state caused the Edenville Dam collapse because of its concern for the mussels and pressure by lake property owners who wanted high water for boating and recreation.

The manipulation of the lake water level was the fallout from action the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) took in September 2018 revoking the company’s license to produce electricity at the Edenville Dam. All dams across the country that produce hydroelectricity are regulated by FERC. Those that do not are under state jurisdiction.

In revoking the Edenville license, the federal agency said it finally acted after the company “knowingly and willfully refused” for more than a decade to comply with “significant license and safety requirements” it mandated to protect the public.

Records show that problems with the dam’s noncompliance with federal safety rules and regulations go back nearly three decades, to previous owners of the Edenville Dam.

Over the years, FERC repeatedly warned that the facility could only handle 50 percent of a maximum flood event. The dam needed additional spillway capacity to dissipate rising water caused by a maximum flood. Federal law requires 100 percent maximum flood protection for hydroelectric dams, while state law dictates just half of that for dams under local control.

Court papers in lawsuits filed after the May 19 dam failures cite repeated meetings and dozens of correspondence between FERC officials and Boyce staff over safety concerns with the dam and the company’s missed deadlines to correct problems.

Rita Lewis, a retired Madison Heights school administrator who, with her husband, Earl, has had a home on Secord Lake since 2012, says over the years neither she, nor friends who live around the lake communities, realized there were such serious safety problems with any of the dams.

map of flood
Current Flow: In mid-May, as the boating season was just opening, a torrent of rain built up so much pressure it caused the breech of two aging dams.

“When FERC pulled the license out of Wixom Lake two years ago and the Four Lakes Task Force was formed, I think that’s when lakefront (property) owners began to become aware of what had been transpiring for a number of years before that,” Lewis says. “With what we now know, we’re asking, how did this happen? How did the dams not get fixed? Why did it take them so long to pull the license?”

Since the failure of the two downstream dams, her life at the lake has been on hold as water levels have been lowered in the two upstream dams to allow for safety inspections.

“We’re kind of in limbo. Our lake is down 10 feet,” she notes. “There’s been no boating. You can see stumps sticking out of the lake bottom. When you drive by and see all these 100-year-old trees sticking out of the bottom, it’s surreal. You can see kayakers go by. Anyone who lives on a canal off the lake, they don’t have water at all.”

The shock of losing Wixom Lake two winters in a row motivated alarmed property owners to form the Four Lakes Task Force to ensure the future of their lakes. Working with Gladwin and Midland county officials, a plan was developed to create a tax assessment zone encompassing the lakes, with the goal of buying the four Boyce dams and doing the repairs needed to bring them up to the required safety standards.

The effort proved popular. Midland’s Dow Chemical Co. donated $250,000, and the two counties contributed the remaining $150,000 in seed money for the task force’s preliminary planning, inspections, and appraisals of the dams. The state of Michigan said it would contribute a $5 million grant toward purchasing the dams and lakes from Boyce. In January, the group and Boyce signed a purchase agreement of $9.4 million, with a closing slated for January 2022.

The May 19 disaster upended that deal. Now, instead of paying Boyce Hydro’s asking price for the four dams, the task force, with the backing of the state and the county, is in court attempting to take those properties through condemnation proceedings.

Phil Dast, an 18-year Secord Lake resident who’s president of the lake’s homeowners association and a member of the task force’s board of directors, says residents were angry that federal and state officials didn’t resolve the dam issues.

“There’s a need for these lakes to exist and to be fixed because of all the millions in real estate investment here, so we need to get the dams fixed and the water level back up,” Dast says. “This disaster caused millions of dollars in damages, and that can’t happen again.”

The fixes the task force envisions will be costly, and as of now it’s the only path forward for the property owners who want to rebuild their homes. Consultants hired by the Four Lakes Task Force estimate it will cost $338 million to restore the dams and refill the lakes. To raise the funds, annual assessments for property owners would be based on the number of residents on each lake.

Projected costs based on a 40-year financing plan would mean Secord Lake residents would pay $339 annually, with $585 for Smallwood Lake, $2,110 for Wixom Lake, and $2,357 for Sanford Lake. The repairs would take about five years to complete. Dast is hopeful the task force and the counties can secure grant funding to pay for cleanup and erosion stabilization costs.

The flooding disaster in May also spotlighted the improbable story of the owners behind Boyce Hydro Power, outsiders who showed up 14 years ago as if they had stepped out of a Hollywood movie script.

Lee Mueller, listed as a co-manager of Boyce Hydro, is an architect who lives in Las Vegas. His cousin, Michel d’Avenas, is the musician son of a French count who grew up in France and Carmel, Calif., and is a well-known professional bagpiper in Monterey.

The two men were heirs to the fortune amassed in the 1920s by a relative, William D. Boyce, a Chicago publishing mogul who founded the Boy Scouts of America. Both are trustees of three trusts set up to handle the Boyce estate.

When It Rains: What looks like an empty lake bed in Sanford was a recreation center offering sports fields and a children’s playground. The massive flood impacted nearly every aspect of the village.

According to news reports, in 2006 the trusts sold valuable property in Illinois that would have required payment of more than $600,000 in capital gains taxes unless it was reinvested in a favorable tax shelter. To achieve that outcome, Mueller was directed to mid-Michigan, where he purchased the four hydroelectric power dams.

Early on, Mueller and his newly created Boyce Hydro power company began jousting with FERC over directives to modernize the nearly 100-year-old Edenville Dam, including additional spillway capacity to handle a maximum flood.

Mueller and Boyce have maintained for years that they couldn’t afford the expensive upgrades FERC required because they didn’t make enough money off their underperforming, outdated electricity contracts with Consumers Energy.

In a statement after the May flooding event, however, Katelyn Carey, a spokeswoman for Consumers Energy, said that in the five years prior to the dam failures, the company paid Boyce Hydro nearly $14 million.

She added Consumers Energy pays a power producer like Boyce Hydro $65 per megawatt hour, while wholesale electricity plants and solar producers are paid less.

Mueller and Boyce also ran afoul of state and county authorities over other broken agreements and their failure to pay property taxes. State records show that as part of the license agreement, the power company committed to building a recreation area including a fishing pier, canoe portages, and hiking paths.

Instead, Boyce Hydro installed fencing and barbed wire to keep the public out. According to Gladwin County Sheriff’s Department records, Mueller apparently objected to public fishing on the Edenville Dam.

In one incident in 2013, deputies said Mueller, then 71 years old, rammed his vehicle into a pickup truck parked near the dam as the occupants were preparing to go fishing on the lake. The following year, two men were fishing on the lake one night when they heard the sound of breaking glass; when they returned to their pickup truck, which was parked at the side of the road, they discovered the windows had been smashed out.

Mueller was charged with felony malicious destruction of property in both cases. He pleaded no contest to reduced misdemeanor charges, served five days in jail for smashing the truck windows, and was ordered to pay for the damages.

In 2010, Midland County foreclosed on 27 parcels of lake bottom property the company owned beneath Sanford Lake for $30,000 due to unpaid taxes. In an interview with MLive at the time, Mueller said he didn’t pay the taxes because the county’s property records were “greatly and massively flawed.”

Mueller, his relative Michele G. Mueller, Michel d’Avenas, and another cousin, Stephen B. Hultberg, who’s also a trustee of the Boyce Trusts, are listed on lawsuits against the company. Michel d’Avenas, however, says he resigned from the trusts years ago and has had no contact with Mueller and the operations of the dams.

While Mueller hasn’t spoken publicly about the dam failures, Kogan, his lawyer, says Mueller is devastated and feels terrible about what happened with the dams.

After its federal hydropower license was revoked in the fall of 2018, the Edenville Dam came under the oversight of EGLE. The agency has responsibility for more than 1,000 dams across Michigan.

A month after the federal hand-off to EGLE, a state dam inspector, Jim Pawlowski, examined the dam. He reported the facility was in “fair structural condition,” but noted that its “two concrete spillways showed signs of moderate deterioration (spalling, exposed reinforced steel, minor cracking, and efflorescence) but appeared to be stable and functioning normally.”

flood clean up
Recovery Mode: It took weeks to clean up sediment and debris left behind by the flood.

The historic May rainstorm and dam failures were a wakeup call for state government as well as communities living near some 2,600 other dams in Michigan. Most are privately owned and date back as far as the late 1800s, and many are now either abandoned, in need of repair, or waiting to be removed.

Until the flood in Midland, oversight of some 1,000 of these structures was carried out by two state dam engineers and a supervisor in Lansing.

EGLE spokesman Nick Assendelft acknowledged that the small crew and their $397,000 budget indicate that dams haven’t been a priority. Only after the May 19 dam failures did Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration move to add personnel, he says.

“We moved to hire another safety engineer in August, and in the budget that was recently signed, we put in for two more; that will give us six positions,” Assendelft says. The six positions will bring the state up to half the number of dam positions recommended by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), a national nonprofit organization brought in by EGLE to critique the state’s dam program.

Following the May dam failures, the state agency established a 19-member Michigan Dam Safety Task Force to make recommendations on policy, budget, legislative, and enforcement reforms to prevent a repeat of the mid-Michigan disaster. The members have backgrounds in dams, business, academia, Native American issues, and public policy. The ASDSO’s critique and recommendations will be incorporated into the final task force report to the governor, expected to be completed early next year.

A 2018 report card on Michigan’s infrastructure prepared by the Michigan Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers revealed that two-thirds of the 2,600 dams in the state are older than their typical 50-year design life, and more than 80 percent will soon be over 50 years old.

Dams are rated as high hazard, significant hazard, and low hazard under federal guidelines. High-hazard dams have the potential to cause loss of life downstream if they fail. Those with a significant hazard rating indicate no deaths in a failure, but considerable property and economic damage may occur. A low-hazard designation, which covers just under half of the dams in Michigan, would affect the owner’s property with little commercial or environmental impact. Of the 1,059 dams regulated by the state, 85 are classified as high hazard, 131 are significant hazard, and 835 are considered low hazard.

In addition, Michigan’s dam engineers grade the condition of dams as satisfactory, fair, unsatisfactory, and poor. According to state records, 69 state dams are in “unsatisfactory” condition, while 10 others are in “poor” condition. The high-hazard Edenville dam was rated in fair condition when it failed.

Five other dams carry high-hazard ratings and are in poor condition, according to Assendelft.

They include Buttermilk Creek Detention Dam in Ottawa County, Cornwall Creek Dam in Cheboygan County, Manistique Papers Dam in Schoolcraft County, Little Black River Structure B in Cheboygan County, and Portage Plant Dam in St. Joseph County.

State officials report they’re working with three of the dams on safety upgrades, while the Manistique Papers Dam is in bankruptcy and is scheduled for removal within five years. The 98-year-old Portage Plant Dam on the Portage River may pose the most serious current danger. The Hoffman Pond reservoir it supports contains an estimated 56 million gallons of water, and is just a mile upstream from downtown Three Rivers.

The dam once produced electricity for Portage Power Co., and was last inspected in 2013. Its hydro capacity has been shuttered by Portage Power Co. since the 1970s. In a report earlier this summer, Luke Trumble, an EGLE dam engineer, said the power company has been nonresponsive and delinquent in submitting inspection reports required by the state.

“We set an Oct. 1 deadline for the owner to respond to us with a plan and schedule to have an in-depth evaluation of the dam completed by a consultant. We haven’t received a response back from the owner,” Assendelft says.

The next step could be the issuance of a notice of violation, which could result in fines of $10,000 per day. “Our intent is always to try to work with the dam owner to fix problems,” he says. “With fines, is it better to have the money an owner would allocate for fines put to use for repairs? We would prefer fixing the problem.”

The Great Flood

One family’s harrowing escape from massive rains and a dam break.

flooded commercial street in Sanford
Main Canal: What was a commercial street in Sanford, could only be accessed by watercraft for some time after the flood. The roads have since been reopened.

Fifteen years ago, David and Sherry Crawford bought a lakefront cottage on Wixom Lake in central Michigan and began building family memories with their three children.

When grandchildren came along, the family bought a second cottage two doors away. “Life was good,” David says. “We spent our summers up there, with the grandkids growing up with us. We’re a tight-knit community of friends there, and our families have grown up together.”

In May, Crawford and his disabled daughter, Jackie, were at the lake, sheltering from COVID-19. The family thought it was a safer alternative
for riding out the pandemic than their home in suburban Detroit, a virus hotspot.

On Monday, May 18, they woke up to a hard rain that continued all day. By 7 p.m. the lake water was spilling over the seawall in front of the cottage.

“The wind was blowing hard out of the east, so I made a decision to start tying down all of the boats — my boats, our neighbor’s boats — and tying them to hoists just in case the water level got any higher,” Crawford says. “At 9:30 p.m., the winds were still blowing. It was raining real hard. My daughter was sleeping and I was keeping an eye on the weather.”

Then he noticed water seeping under the doors. As Crawford and his daughter rushed to gather up their personal items, a firefighter knocked at the door and directed them to leave immediately.

Crawford grabbed his work computer, picked up Jackie, who normally uses a wheelchair, and carried her out to their van, wading through knee-deep water. After taking shelter at a friend’s cottage on higher ground, he went to bed.

At 1:30 a.m., he awoke once again to a fireman banging on the door, shouting for everyone to leave. They were warned the upstream Smallwood Dam may breech, triggering a surge of water as high as 20 feet.

Rather than risk possibly exposing Jackie to COVID-19 by sheltering in a nearby high school crowded with people, Crawford drove home to Madison Heights. The next morning, a friend at the lake sent him a text as he paddled in a kayak through 4 feet of floodwater in Crawford’s neighborhood. The friend suggested he return quickly and salvage what he could.

When he arrived at Wixom Lake about noon, Crawford took the final quarter mile in a canoe. Paddling past a stream of memories, he arrived at his cottage and disembarked into chest-high water. He took pictures off the walls and passed them and other items out the front door or windows to friends standing outside.

The boats he had tied down had broken loose, and were either leaning against trees or wedged against houses. With the floodwater under the boats, Crawford and his friends were able to fire up the motors and navigate to a safer area. All the while, helicopters were flying above and the Michigan State Police requested they leave. At 5:30 p.m., word came water had breached the Edenville Dam.

“All the water was rushing out of the lake. I saw the M-30 Bridge disintegrate and wind up in the river,” Crawford says. “It was there one second, then all of a sudden it all collapsed and it was gone. That’s how quickly the water was rushing out of the dam.

“We saw a 2,000-acre lake empty out in an hour and a half. In that time, the 4 feet of water we were standing in was gone, and the entire lake was gone.”

When he returned 48 hours later, his appliances were full of lake water and fish were flopping on the floor. Since that time, his two cottages, along with scores of other homes, have been gutted for sanitary reasons. “I took my wife there a couple days later, and she just broke down. All the family memories are gone,” Crawford says. The lake they had enjoyed summer after summer is now a meadow, overgrown with vegetation 4 feet high. “It looks like there never was a lake there. I wake up some nights and relive it. It’s a nightmare.”