News Story

Midland, Gladwin taxpayers could pay for 2020 flood for 30 years

The price tag of the Edenville Dam fix could hit $250 million. The counties are trying to collect $60 million over 30 years.

The Edenville and Sanford Dam Flood of May 2020 was not the mere fallout of a 500-year storm. It was a failure, too, of government, and one that could prove costly for the next 30 years for taxpayers in Midland and Gladwin counties.

When the feds handed the state oversight of the Edenville Dam in 2018, after cancelling owner Boyce Hydro’s federal permits, the state became preoccupied with what one news report called “delicate underwater life” in the dam, and not the safety issues that led to its involvement.

As The Detroit News reported the day of the flood:

Days after feds revoked the dam’s license to generate power, the state assumed oversight, inspected the dam and declared it and its spillways to be in “fair structural condition.”

Over the next two years, state regulators appear to have focused increasingly on what they said was the company’s unauthorized drawdown of winter water levels of Wixom Lake, which they said created a danger to freshwater mussels.

In the weeks leading up to the flood, the state’s focus was on mussels in the dam, not the possibility it would flood. In litigation with Boyce Hydro, the state’s complaint mentioned “mussels” 38 times, but “flood” only once. The state argued that Boyce Hydro’s drawdown of the dam had killed millions.

Then, on May 20, with the water not drawn down, the storm hit, causing the evacuation of 10,000 people, and washing out four lakes: Sanford, Secord, Smallwood, and Wixom. It’s those lakes Midland and Gladwin County are trying to restore.

On Tuesday, at a joint meeting of their county boards, Midland and Gladwin county commissioners will vote on whether to approve a 30-year tax to raise $60 million, per MLive. That’s a fraction of the total $250 million price tag for the restoration.

The remainder will be made up by $200 million in state funds — which is to say, taxpayer money. James Hohman, the Mackinac Center's director of fiscal policy, described the $200 million in Bridge Magazine as "a gift to the area and the residents who are going to benefit from it."

That gift came from Michigan taxpayers. 

Beyond the costs already accrued, the state of Michigan is facing 25 civil lawsuits related to the dam failure. Taxpayers will fund the state’s cost of litigation and any payout ordered or arrived at, if there is one. When last the matter was in court, the case was allowed to proceed.

Jason Hayes, the Mackinac Center’s director of environmental policy, told Michigan Capitol Confidential he attributes the blame 50-50 between Boyce Hydro and the federal and state officials with oversight power.

Since Boyce Hydro went bankrupt after the dam failure, that left taxpayers as the only source of rebuilding funds, Hayes noted.

“The people in this area wouldn’t have had to deal with the flood if the state and federal government had done their jobs,” Hayes said.

When the government makes mistakes, real people’s lives are affected. For taxpayers, the costs of failed government oversight keep adding up.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.