When the Mid-Michigan dam failures occurred in May 2019, the Dam Safety Program under the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) was a key part of the discussions surrounding the state's role in regulating dams.
The Dam Safety Unit has regulatory authority over a subset of the state's dams under Part 315 for dams of a certain size and/or Part 307 for legal lake level control structures and at the time had a staff of two dam safety engineers and one supervisor who also led EGLE's Hydrologic Studies and Floodplain Management Programs.
Recognizing that staffing was inadequate, EGLE successfully sought support in the Legislature after the dam failures to expand the program's staffing. Before May 2020, the Dam's staff had 2 ½ full-time equivalent positions and a budget of approximately $350,000. In the year since the failures, EGLE has created a standalone Dam Safety Unit with five full-time equivalent staff and a budget of $700,000. Luke Trumble, a dam safety engineer with 11 years of experience with EGLE and dam operations, was selected as the unit's supervisor.
The additional staffing will allow the Dam Safety Unit to perform more compliance reviews, reduce the number of dams each inspector is responsible for, and allow for increased interactions with dam owners to make sure dams are safe and follow regulatory rules.
In addition to funding from the Legislature, the Dam Safety Unit receives budgetary inputs from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for inspecting DNR-owned dams, EGLE permit fees and a small grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) National Dam Safety Program.
Driving the increased funding and staffing was an understanding that the Dam Safety Program has traditionally been underfunded for its important role of overseeing critical infrastructure around the state. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) said in its September 2020 post-dam failure peer review of the Dam Safety Program that staff "are dedicated, well-educated, experienced engineers that are doing the best they can, given the limited time and resources available under current budgeting." However, "we found that the DSP is extremely understaffed to perform the mission of dam safety as mandated by the legislation, rules, and best practice."
The ASDSO report's recommendations informed the final report by the Michigan Dam Safety Task Force, which provided among its 86 recommendations a number of steps to improve the Dam Safety Unit's regulatory authority, staffing, emergency powers and long-term funding.
The Dam Safety Task Force's recommendations cover a wide range of topics that require short- and long-term changes to programmatic, legislative and stakeholder responsibilities. However, EGLE has moved forward quickly with changes to it dam program. Some changes are completed, including:
Recommendations in progress by EGLE are:
EGLE looks forward to working with legislators on the additional recommendations from the program review, which includes long-term adequate funding and staffing for the program and legislative changes that provide regulators with better resources to hold dam owners accountable for safe maintenance practices and upkeep.
This map shows the territories and contact information for Dam Safety Unit staff.
To report dam safety emergencies, call 800-292-4706.
Photo caption: Luke Trumble, EGLE's Dam Unit supervisor, meets with a local official during a dam inspection in Lake Orion in 2020.