Michigan Dam Failures and Climate Change

By Kip Hansen  —  Re-Blogged From WUWT

In keeping with the NY Times’ Editorial Narrative on climate change (“every story is a climate story”), Henry Fountain writes this piece:  ‘Expect More’: Climate Change Raises Risk of Dam Failures.     It carries the sub-title “Engineers say most dams in the United States, designed decades ago, are unsuited to a warmer world and stronger storms.”

The story is the sad tale of the dual dam failures in Michigan – the Edenville Dam failed and the resulting downstream flow overtopped the Sanford Lake Dam situated 10 miles further downstream on the Tittabawassee River.

Don’t know where that is?



About 65 miles north of Lansing.

Fountain reports:  “The dam that failed in Central Michigan on Tuesday gave way for the same reason most do: It was overwhelmed by water. Almost five inches of rain fell in the area in the previous two days, after earlier storms had saturated the ground and swollen the Tittabawassee River, which the dam held back.”

I give Fountain some credit for his clear statement:

“No one can say yet whether the intense rainfall that preceded this disaster was made worse by climate change.”

The facts do not deter Fountain from then claiming – using the magic ball of “experts” – that:

But global warming is already causing some regions to become wetter, and increasing the frequency of extreme storms, according to the latest National Climate Assessment. The trends are expected to continue as the world gets even warmer.

That puts more of the nation’s 91,500 dams at risk of failing, engineers and dam safety experts said.”

He then  quotes Amir AghaKouchak, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California, Irvine  “We should expect more of these down the road,  It’s unfortunate but this is what the trend is going to be. …. Overall, he and others say, dams in the United States and elsewhere are unprepared for the changes coming in a warming world.”

This string of expert logic goes like this:

  1. A single dam failed in rural Michigan because it received too much water coming downstream.
  2. Some places in the U.S. are getting wetter and some places are getting drier (ref: the latest National Climate Assessment).
  3. In the future, some places will continue to get wetter and some places will continue to get drier (and some places, oddly, will remain the same).
  4. Therefore: “More” of the 91,500 dams in the United States are at risk of failing. 

Gotta love those experts.

What’s the real story here?  Despite spinning to story to gloom-and-false-doom, as his editors require, Fountain at least admits, halfway through the story:

The dam, at Edenville Township, about 30 miles upstream from Midland, had severe design problems: It had been cited for having spillways that were inadequate to handle a maximum flood, whether affected by climate change or not. ….  But the Edenville Dam was hardly alone in being outdated, with design or maintenance deficiencies or other problems that might make it unsafe. The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its latest report card on infrastructure in 2017, gave the nation’s dams a “D” grade.


As was the case with the Oroville Dam  (and subsequent posts) in California in 2017, an emergency that forced the evacuation of 188,000 people, the problem was not just “too much rain”.  There were design flaws and mismanagement of the water flows.  They had not planned properly even for the present, no less predicted maximum stream flows.

Fountain unfortunately links to a model-driven study that he claims:  “…found that human-caused warming had increased early season runoff in the Sierra Nevada, contributing to the high water levels at the dam.”  

“This study investigates temperature impacts to snowpack and runoff‐driven flood risk over the Sierra Nevada during the extremely wet year of 2016–2017, which followed the extraordinary California drought of 2011–2015. By perturbing near‐surface temperatures from a 9‐km dynamically downscaled simulation, a series of offline land surface model experiments explore how Sierra Nevada hydrology has already been impacted by historical anthropogenic warming and how these impacts evolve under future warming scenarios.”

We already know that good snowpack years followed by early and warm springs cause heavy run-off – more run-off, less soaking in — which is generally good for California’s reservoirs.

Stream flows, higher or lower, are caused by weather.  Long-term averages are considered climate.

This flood event on the Tittabawassee  River:


[ link ]

For the Tittabawassee  River, the recent event was a record, but  we find that the historical crests (highest flood waters) have, as usual in climate science journalism,  been neglected and left out of the report  in favor of alarming news about the present.

20 Highest Historic Crests — Tittabawassee River at Midland

35.05, 05/20/2020 – This recent event.

33.89, 09/13/1986

32.15, 06/24/2017

29.70, 03/28/1916

29.50, 03/21/1948

28.80, 03/08/1946

28.37, 04/20/2013

28.26, 04/15/2014

28.00, 06/03/1945

27.82, 04/04/1959

27.75, 04/29/2011

27.60, 03/22/1976

27.52, 02/22/2018

27.45, 03/07/2004

27.08, 09/02/1975

27.08, 04/01/1960

26.98, 04/13/1965

26.97, 03/15/2006

26.80, 04/13/2013

26.34, 07/10/1957

I could find no reliable historical precipitation records for Central Michigan, though there is some observational evidence that the spring season has been wetter in recent years, but we can see that flood events are spread out over the decades, and happen every couple of years.

So – what is the real problem that resulted in this disaster for so many residents and businesses in the Midland area?

GREED:  “The wrestling match among four communities in Michigan’s heavily flooded areas, state and federal officials, and Boyce [Boyce Hydro Power LLC] goes back several years. The company and the community have been trying to get the other to pay for improvements as far back as 2012.”

And self-interest:  “When Boyce stopped generating power at the Edenville Dam, which is on the border of Midland and Gladwin counties, the company let the water level on Wixom Lake fall. Four area homeowners associations that had banded together to form the Four Lakes Task Force crafted a plan to have the two counties buy out Boyce and give oversight of the dams to the task force…. “People were upset because they couldn’t use the lake the way they wanted to,” said Stacy Trapani, a spokeswoman for Four Lakes.”  [ link ]

In short, everyone – local, state, federal and corporate officials knew that the dam was unsafe and would not stand up to a major flood event.  But no one wanted to pay for the needed upgrades to make it safe.  Local residents were upset when the power company used the water in the lakes to make electricity as that caused the water levels to fluctuate and interfered with their recreational boating and marinas – thus they advocating for leaving the lakes full. 

These two overlapping and competing interests caused a disaster – not the weather, not the climate, not climate change.

I have not mentioned the other factors that generally add to the flooding of America’s rivers  – dredging, diking, narrowing of the stream bed and other human interference with Nature’s unavoidable need to let water flow downhill.  You can bet there is a some of that on the Tittabawassee  River as well.


One thought on “Michigan Dam Failures and Climate Change

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s