Minor damage expected from partial breach of Hillsdale County dam

State environmental regulators say minimal damage is anticipated for a small Hillsdale County dam following a partial breach.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said late Saturday that partial breach of the Bear Lake Dam dropped water levels in Bear Lake several inches.

Officials from the Hillsdale County Drain Commission, which owns the structure, are “working on solutions to temporarily repair the leakage,” an EGLE news release notes.

An executive with the drain commission could not immediately be reached Sunday.

EGLE noted that water is leaking around the structure, but water levels in the lake are not expected to drop more than a foot. The dam is ranked as a low-hazard structure. 

The partial breach isn’t the first for the dam, which has had issues with water flowing around the structure that were temporarily remedied with the installation of concrete bags.

A 2019 inspection report from a consultant hired by the owner rated the dam’s condition as “satisfactory” and recommended the bags be replaced with steel sheeting or a concrete wall.

That work, the state said, has not yet been performed. 

EGLE said no significant flooding is anticipated and damage is expected to be limited to erosion around the breach site. 

The dam is less than 6 feet tall, and not regulated under a provision of the the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act that deals with structural and maintenance deficiencies. The dam, however, is regulated under a different section of the act that establishes a court-ordered legal lake level.

The partial breach follows a separate event in mid-Michigan in the spring that unfolded when a dam failed there, devastating some Midland communities and prompting state-level reforms. 

The Edenville Dam failed amid historic rains May 19, sending a surge of water downstream and over the top of the Sanford Dam, causing minor damage. The Smallwood and Secord dams also were damaged. 

The dam owners had been scolded by federal regulators for more than a decade. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked the dam’s hydropower generation license in 2018. 

The state in July announced it would hire a third dam inspector for the 1,050 dams it regulates and form a task force to review dam safety operations.

EGLE, at the same time, has said it was awaiting results from two independent reviews of the state’s dam safety operations.

Twin companies that own and operated the failed dams — Boyce Hydro LLC and Boyce Hydro Power LLC — filed for bankruptcy this month amid attempts by residents to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. 


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