|Two Flint dams in need of repairs -- yesterday
Jeff Johnston | Flint Journal By Jeff Johnston | Flint Journal
on October 13, 2007 at 3:44 PM, updated October 13, 2007 at 5:46 PM
FLINT -- Someday, a brand new kind of Hamilton Dam could cross the Flint River, one that lets spawning walleye journey upstream and kayakers shoot down man-made rapids through the University of Michigan-Flint campus.
Or it might be a historic re-creation of Flint's colorful Carriage Town-era past, with scrolled stone arches and wrought iron streetlights.
Or a majestic, two-story walkway where people can stroll from the river's south bank to the north, gazing down at the water below. Heck, it could even become a first-class fishing hole.
But if "someday" doesn't happen soon, engineers have a different vision: of the crumbling, 87-year-old structure failing, sending torrents of contaminated floodwaters through downtown Flint, draining the city's emergency water supply and threatening businesses, homes and lives.
Hamilton is among thousands of dangerously aging dams across the country living on borrowed time -- waiting years for long-stalled federal funding to repair or replace them before they fail.
In Michigan, it is among the top five.
That's why for more than a year, the Hamilton Dam Committee -- a group of wildlife biologists, environmentalists, engineers and city, state and university officials -- has been working hard to make sure the right "someday" happens.
"Everybody's known it's a problem for a long time. Butthis is the first time everybody is at the table and very focused on a collaborative way to solve this problem," said committee chair Renee Zientek of UM-Flint Outreach.
It's a chance to get creative, but there are constraints, said Jason Kenyon of civil engineering firm Wade Trim. Any solution has to:
* Keep the water high enough upstream for the city's emergency backup water plant to pump.
* Maintain enough flow downstream to run the city's wastewater treatment plant on Linden Road.
* Prevent long-buried industrial contaminants from washing downstream.
The city hasn't given up on the option of rebuilding a traditional dam on the existing base, which would save millions if the base is structurally sound, said city Utilities Director Bob Misekow.
Others say a nontraditional dam might actually end up cheaper through lower construction costs and grants available for environmental and recreational improvements.
"The question is, when will the money get here? That's what it's always been," said Bob Carlyon, the city's former chief water expert and now of Rowe Inc.
It's a good question.
Even if President Bush signs the Water Resources Development Act of 2007 this month -- and he's threatened to veto it -- it would be 2009 at the earliest before any actual funds are available.
"WRDA is the authorization to spend money, but it's useless without an appropriations bill. It's like giving someone a checkbook without any funds in the checking account," said Tiffany Flynn, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Flint, who has been pushing for dam funding for more than a decade.
Meanwhile, staffers at U.S. Sen. Carl Levin's office say they're talking with the Army Corps of Engineers to see if any kind of emergency funding might be possible.
Will the Hamilton Dam hold until that happens?
Back in 1989, when concrete borings revealed critical deterioration at every key point, engineers first warned the dam could fail.
The city scraped together enough money for a Band-Aid fix, but little has happened since.
And when it comes to dams, Flint has other fish to fry, too.
The city's Thread Lake Dam, built in the 1880s on Thread Creek southeast of downtown Flint, is in such poor shape that the state Department of Environmental Quality could order the water drawn down if it's not repaired or replaced, said DEQ inspector Paul Wessel.
Repairs likely would cost more than $1 million. Removing the dam would be cheaper, but doing so would expose contaminated sediments from historic industrial pollution and leave nearby residents with acres of mudflats.
Still, there's far more focus today on the much larger Hamilton Dam, an eyesore with its concrete cracked and broken and its rusted metal skeleton exposed like urban roadkill. Three of its six gates no longer work. Engineers fear opening a fourth "instead of lifting the gate could pull the whole dam down," said Carlyon.
In 2005, the DEQ ordered that if steps aren't taken by 2008, the Flint River must be lowered to avoid a catastrophic dam failure.
Loss of life isn't as big a worry as it once was -- most homes in the floodplain were removed in the 1970s. But the dam holds back long-buried pollutants from a turn-of-the-century coal plant.
"If the dam were to fail, whatever is in that contaminated sediment would go downstream," said Paul Wessel of the DEQ.
The Catch-22 if the dam isn't fixed: Lowering the river would expose those same sediments -- plus render the water plant inoperable.
On Oct. 5, Flint Mayor Don Williamson publicly committed the city -- which owns the dam -- to the project. But it's all empty words without funding. Seven years ago, replacement was tagged at more than $5 million and likely would be much higher now.
An engineering study to plan the new dam could cost from $30,000 to more than $300,000. The city has held off until now in hopes of applying the cost toward its share of a WRDA matching grant.
"There is a certain feeling of urgency that we can't wait for federal funding to get this pre-engineering completed," said Zientek. "We're now trying to identify other sources in partnership with the city."
Meanwhile, the Hamilton Dam keeps holding on, by a metal-and-concrete thread.
Lakefront resident Jack Hinterman has seen hints of what could happen if the dam ever fails at Holloway Reservoir.
"Whenever the city draws it down for work, just a swing of a couple feet and all of a sudden the boat ramps don't work and public enjoyment of the water is disrupted," said Hinterman, vice president of the Holloway Lake Association. "We've all seen photos from the 1970s when they took the water way down. It looked like a disaster scene.
"But that's just talking (about) those of us who live on the reservoir. The real problem would be where all the water ends up downstream."
Hinterman isn't worried the dam will actually break -- state inspectors report it is in good shape -- but he'd like to see more public attention to dam safety issues.
"It's our whole life, that's why we're out here. Losing the dam would certainly change our way of life and everybody's property values," said Hinterman. "But it's the kind of thing when there hasn't been problems for awhile, it slips to the back of everybody's mind. And that's when things start to happen, especially with things as old as most of this country's dams."
The Holloway Reservoir dam -- built in 1953-54 -- is one of 10 out of 16 Genesee County dams rated by the state Department of Environmental Quality as either a "high" or "significant" hazard to life, property or the environment if they were to fail.
Most are in fair to good condition despite their age, needing only minor repairs and general maintenance.
Here's a look at some of the latest DEQ status report for the county's top 10 dams:
Location: Atlas Mill Pond, Atlas Township.
Owner: Genesee County Road Commission.
Details: Overgrown trees and brush on embankment. Additional spillway capacity recommended to increase flood safety margin. Major improvements to road, guardrail and spillway were done about seven years ago and tree and brush removal is being done this year, said Genesee County Road Commission engineering director Fred Peivandi.
Location: North Ore Creek, Argentine Township.
Owner: Argentine Township.
Details: Downstream sluice gates partly functional. Erosion next to left overflow spillway wall. Overgrown trees and brush on downstream embankment. Deteriorated fish ladder wall. Slope of left embankment needs to be flattened. The county Road Commission is responsible for maintaining the dam. Tree and brush clearing and some erosion control work is being done this fall, said Peivandi.
Location: Fenton Mill Pond, Fenton.
Owner: City of Fenton.
Details: In 2006, the city spent $225,000 to replace broken sluice gates and do other repairs first recommended by the DEQ in 1997. The dam's condition should be upgraded in the next DEQ report. "We'd applied for help through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for years but they kept turning us down," said city DPW Director Les Bland.
Location: Goodrich Millpond, Goodrich.
Owner: Village of Goodrich.
Details: In September, the village spent $20,000 to repair leaking gates, patch concrete and fill a large void under the structure. The dam's condition should be upgraded in the next DEQ report. "It's a priority for us. The millpond is the focal point of the entire area," said village administrator Jakki Sidge. "If it failed, there's not that many homes upriver, but the school bus garage and the Reid Elementary playground would be affected. We're staying on top of it so that doesn't happen."
Location: Flint River on the University of Michigan-Flint campus, Flint.
Owner: City of Flint.
Details: Concrete severely deteriorated throughout. At least three of six gates are inoperable, with serious concerns about a fourth. Trees and debris blocking gates and fish ladder. The DEQ has ordered the river be lowered if steps aren't taken by 2008. The Hamilton Dam Committee is working on solutions with the city, with hopes to apply for federal funding as soon as it becomes available.
Location: Holloway Reservoir, Richfield Township.
Owner: City of Flint.
Details: No substantial problems, according to DEQ inspector Paul Wessel.
Location: Kearsley Reservoir.
Owner: City of Flint.
Details: Significant repairs were done in 1999 with no serious current concerns, said Wessel.
Linden Mill Dam
Location: Linden Mill Pond, Linden.
Built: Mid-1800s, rebuilt in 1967.
Owner: Genesee County Drain Commission.
Details: Routine maintenance each year includes re-seeding grassy areas around the dam walls to prevent erosion.
Mott Dam (Stepping Stone Falls)
Location: Mott Lake in Genesee Recreation Area, Genesee Township.
Owner: Genesee County Parks.
Details: Eroded west embankment. Overgrown trees, brush and cattails on west bank. Fire-damaged portions of the west spillway abutment wall. Deteriorated concrete on the upper spillway. The issues are mainly cosmetic and most are being addressed this fall, said parks facilities director Ron Walker.
Thread Lake Dam
Location: Thread Lake, Flint.
Owner: City of Flint.
Details: Inoperable gate. Significant deterioration of wing walls and central pier. Insufficient spillway capacity. The dam is in poor enough shape that the DEQ could order the water drawn down if it's not repaired or replaced, Wessel said. Repair costs would likely be more than $1 million. Removal would be cheaper but would expose contaminated sediments from historic industrial pollution and leave residents with acres of mudflats.
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