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Too many dams, too little money

Tim Cwalinski

Of the nearly 2,600 dams in Michigan, more than 90% are going to hit or exceed their design life in 2020, according to a 2014 report

Among those is the 54-year-old Cornwall Creek Dam in Wolverine, Michigan.



Although younger than most dams in Michigan, it’s older than it should be, said Tim Cwalinski, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.


“It’s barely structurally sound,” Cwalinski said.


The Cornwall Creek Dam is one of six high hazard, poor condition dams in Michigan.  Actually, one of five now that Midland’s Edenville Dam collapsed.

A combination of heavy rain and aging infrastructure led to the collapse of the Edenville Dam along the Tittabawassee River in Midland County on May 19.  Close to 10,000 residents were evacuated.

The Cornwall Creek Dam could collapse during an everyday rainstorm and produce a flood wave strong enough to wipe out several roads downstream.


However, removal isn’t an option in this case.


Cornwall Creek Flooding is a lake made possible by the Cornwall Dam.  And it means a lot to a lot of people.            

“If we removed this, we’d never hear the end of it,” Cwalinski said. “People from across the state come here to camp by it, to recreate on it, to kayak on it, to fish on it. It would be a lot easier for us, but we’d be losing a great fishery.”

Local resident Joe Jarecki agrees.


“One of the neat things about it is there’s a 100% wild shoreline,” Jarecki said.  “No development other than the dam itself and the boat access site.”

This makes it a popular fishing, canoeing and camping spot, but still wild enough where Jarecki sometimes spots eagle and loon nests.

Although it would be much easier to remove the dam, Cwalinski says it’s not worth losing the lake.

So instead, the DNR wants to rebuild it.  But it’ll cost anywhere from 300 to 500 thousand dollars.

Which is cheap as far as dams go.

Credit Tim Cwalinski
Tim Cwalinski after catching two large-mouth bass on Cornwall Creek Flooding.

Most dams take millions of dollars to remove, according to Joe Nohner, a resource analyst with the DNR.  And larger hydroelectric dams can cost anywhere from 10 to 50 million dollars.

But the Cornwall Creek Dam isn’t necessarily a top priority.

“There are many dams across the state that we have concerns about,” Nohner said.  “In the future they are going to need management, either a repair or removal, in order for the dam to be safe.”

However, the state can only afford to address a fraction of those dams with the current budget.

“In total, you’re looking at about $1.8 million per year from the fisheries division that could potentiallywork on dam removal and repair.  But that also addresses all of the other habitat needs,” he said.  “So we’re doing a lot with that money.  Not just working on dams.”

But even if all $1.8 million were put towards dam removals, that would only cover the cost of one medium-to-small dam.

“When you look at that amount of money from the state relative to the need out there, we have to be very strategic about which projects we work on,” he said.  “And we can’t work on all of them.”

Although some funding also comes from federal sources like the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s still nowhere near enough money to meet the needs of every aging dam in Michigan.

But even if funding weren’t an issue, time is.

The Boardman River Renewal Project in Traverse City began in 2005 after four dams on the Boardman River were deemed economically inefficient and hazardous to the community and environment.  Since then, three have been removed and one is being restored.

“It took about 13 years to get three dams removed,” said project coordinator for Conservation Resource Alliance, Kimberly Balke, of the Boardman River Renewal Project.  “So it’s best to decide to remove that dam when you have the time to safely remove it.”

There are many environmental benefits that come with dam removal as well.

Besides eliminating the risk of a future collapse, dam removal can allow for nutrients and debris to flow naturally down the river, more water-related recreation and tourism and native fish habitat restoration.

Dams can also injure fish and other aquatic life that try to pass through, Nohner said.

But non-profit conservation group, Huron Pines, said removing the Cornwall Dam would do more harm than good.

“After looking at it from different perspectives and looking at it from the health of the river, we do agree that replacement of the structure is a really important thing to do,” said Lisha Ramsdell, associate director of the northern Michigan based association.  “Letting it be is just not an option for these structures anymore.”

Huron Pines helped receive grant funding for the rebuilding of the Cornwall Creek Dam, and they are now managing the project.

The rebuilding of the Cornwall Creek Dam is set to be complete by fall of next year.

No money has been added to the state’s dam maintenance fund since the collapse of the Edenville dam, and there’s currently no plan to.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has said she would like to increase the state’s dam fund, but she’d first like support from the federal government.