Thousands fled for their lives when two Michigan dams collapsed. Experts warn it could happen again.

The river in its natural state would also be less likely to flood downstream in Midland, he said.

But Sanford and Wixom lakes are deeply intertwined with the economy of the region. Lakefront property owners pay high taxes that the region depends on, and local businesses have long catered to boaters.

People on the lakes are adamant that their waterfront be restored. But, in the aftermath of the flood, as residents, state officials and the dams’ owner, Boyce Hydro, LLC, all blame one another for the disaster, it’s not clear what will happen next — or who will make those decisions.

Many of the homeowners blame Lee Mueller, the man who bought Boyce Hydro as a tax shelter in 2006, according to court records reviewed by Bridge Magazine. Since then, the company, which operates four dams including the two that failed, has been cited for a host of safety violations that warned the Edenville dam couldn’t withstand heavy rains.

Mueller blames state and federal agencies, who he says imposed so many regulations — and made rules barring private dam owners like him from receiving federal financial support — that he didn’t have the money to make needed repairs.

“Unfortunately, environmental protection took precedence over public safety,” said Lawrence Kogan, an attorney for Mueller.

Mueller has also blamed the homeowners who he says have pressured him for years to keep water levels high so they could go boating, when he wanted them lower for safety reasons. The state compounded that pressure by raising concerns over lower water levels hurting freshwater mussels in the lake — an issue that triggered a state lawsuit against Boyce this year, just weeks before the flood.

In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees hydroelectric dams, was so alarmed by safety concerns at the Edenville dam that it yanked Boyce’s license to produce power there. That meant the company had even less money to make repairs.

The dam then fell under the oversight of the state, which regulates dams that don’t produce electricity. The state, which has just two inspectors and a supervisor to keep tabs on 2,500 dams, also warned that repairs were needed, but neither agency found a way to compel Mueller to make the repairs.

“Enforcement is the issue. That’s where this fell apart,” said Jim Hegarty, the past president of the Michigan section of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the co-author of two reports on the state of Michigan’s dams.

States need tools, such as the ability to make dam owners post bonds that could pay for needed repairs, he said. States also could help pay for those repairs, he added, but Michigan is among states that have no dedicated funding for that purpose.

Boyce had been trying to sell the dams to a consortium of homeowners on the lakes, who had planned to raise money through a property tax assessment to make repairs. Late last year, the Four Lakes Task Force estimated the four Boyce dams needed $20 million in repairs. But the dams failed before that sale could go through.

The disaster has prompted a slew of lawsuits, with some homeowners suing Boyce and others also suing the state for poor oversight. On Tuesday, the state, which is conducting an investigation, filed suit against Boyce. The company responded the next day, putting the blame back on the state and asking to move the suits to federal court.

What’s next

No one knows how much it will cost to rebuild the dams, but it’s definitely going to be expensive — and it’s not clear who would cover the cost.

Many homeowners on the lake say they want to get the dams out of Mueller’s hands.

“When you have a private person owning something like a dam and trying to own it for the sake of his own profits, then you end up with bad decisions,” Schulz, Lackey’s daughter, said. “This was not a natural disaster. This was a dam that was neglected and it failed. This was a man-made disaster.”

The Schulz and Lackey cottages during the flooding.Courtesy of Sarah Schulz

If homeowners want the dams out of Mueller’s hands, however, they’ll have to buy them, Kogan said. His client has no intention of just giving them away and losing his investment.

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Mich., who represents the area, said the two lakes “are a tremendous resource for the region” and need to be restored, whether that means raising money from private corporations or from a public-private partnership.

“We’re going to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to look at a variety of options and work together to solve this,” he said.

Some locals are hoping the state and federal governments will help buy and repair the dams, but that might not go over well with people who don’t live on the lakes.

Peter Sinclair, a videographer from Midland who has traveled the world documenting the effects of climate change, was surprised last month when he found his own city underwater. Midland, he said, has experienced some flooding but had always been safe from major climate disasters such as hurricanes and forest fires.

He doesn’t think it makes sense for taxpayers to spend money on dams that could fail again in the future — particularly when both state and local agencies are already facing a severe economic crisis from the coronavirus.

As he watches his city try to recover from the dam collapse, he hopes this disaster in Michigan will be a wake-up call for people around the country.

“What happened here is not isolated,” he said. “This potential situation exists in thousands of places across the Midwest where people have not felt threatened by climate change but global change is combining with decaying infrastructure to accelerate the time when many communities are going to be faced with the same issues.”

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