HRWC Dams and Impoundments Program

Dexter Dam Prior to Removal
Mill Pond Dam (Dexter) prior to removal

In 1995, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources “Fisheries Research Report” recommended removing select dams to improve fisheries.

On the Huron River, the MDNR identified three dams for removal:

  • Argo in Ann Arbor
  • Mill Pond in Dexter (this dam is now removed)
  • Peninsular Paper in Ypsilanti (feasibility study for removing the dam is in process)

At that time and the years since, HRWC has supported the communities in which these dams are located with technical assistance about stream flows, the impacts of dams and other flow alterations, and options for dam management.

In the last several years, HRWC’s work with dams has broadened to look at all 100 dams across the watershed. HRWC is learning more about the systematic problems caused by an entire watershed of dams, as well as problems caused by specific dams. HRWC will continually work with all communities, dam owners, and dam operators in improving the functionality of their dams and potentially removing the dams altogether.

To learn more about the general threats that dams and impoundments pose to the health of a river, go here.

Ypsilanti Peninsular Dam

The dam was originally constructed in 1867 to provide power for paper manufacturing; it failed in 1918 and was rebuilt in 1920. The Peninsular Paper Company Dam, powered a paper mill in Ypsilanti that produced newsprint for Chicago for a century from the 1860’s to the 1970’s. The Dam no longer generates power and all electricity-generating equipment has been removed from the powerhouse. In the mid-1980s, the Peninsular Paper Company donated the Peninsular Paper Dam and land to the City of Ypsilanti. The City created a park on the land and is now responsible for maintaining the dam.

• The Peninsular Dam created a wider river upstream with calmer water, essentially creating a pond. Approximately 2 dozen homeowners have waterfront property on this shoreline.
• The abandoned Paper Mill building is considered an historical landmark by many locals, including the Historic District Commission. The City has not declared the building as a historical landmark yet.

The City of Ypsilanti is responsible for managing the dam and paying for inspections and repairs.
• Under State law, the dam is not compliant with safety standards. The City is legally obligated to fix it up– or remove it. In 2014, the cost was estimated at $650,000 to make the required repairs. That estimation is now about $1 million.
• The aging dam can be hazardous and therefore potentially create liability issues for the City if an accident occurs.
• It would cost far more to fix up the dam to generate electricity again than the revenue it could gain from the newly generated electricity.

It would eliminate dam maintenance and repair costs, and potential liability costs
• The river would open up to the public for wading, fishing, and paddling
• The City would comply with State and Federal Laws regarding the local management of water resources
• The health of the river and wildlife would improve, which would also raise the quality of life for all in the area
• It will increase economic activity by highlighting the waterfront as an attraction to be enjoyed by locals and visitors

If the dam is repaired (+$1 million), the costs for maintaining it will continue and increase due to the aging infrastructure. The City would need to continue inspections every 3 years. There are no grant funds available for repairing the dam so the City will need to pay for it.

In 2018, the City and the Huron River Watershed Council hired an engineering firm to do a study on how much it will cost to remove the dam, details on the dam removal process, and recommendations for land ownership. The study is not complete yet. Grants for dam removal exist and are a potential funding source for supporting removal and restoration costs.

The City is waiting on the study results because a decision needs to be made on whether to repair the dam to keep it or remove it altogether.

The City is required to pay for inspections and repairs of the dam so it has fewer funds to spend on community programs and infrastructure. Also, since the dam harms the river and wildlife, the quality of life in the community is compromised.

Because the dam blocks the flow of the river, people who fish have less to catch and canoe/kayakers have to remove their boats, walk around the dam, and put their boats back in. If the dam is removed, river recreation will increase and businesses near the river will have more customers.

Check out the story of our work in Dexter to remove the dam

A History of HRWC’s Dam Activities

Activity Activity Description Links to more information
Co-funding Peninsular Paper Dam Removal Feasibility Study HRWC and the City of Ypsilanti have hired an engineering firm to study the feasibility of redeveloping and revitalizing the Pen Park area for more recreational and economic uses and improved water quality from removing the dam.
Advocating for Argo Dam Removal. 2007-2011. HRWC worked with scientists, governments, and outdoor groups in pushing for removal of Argo Dam. The dam has not been removed.
Removal of Mill Dam 2007-2009. HRWC worked with the Village of Dexter in removing the dam on Mill Pond. Making History on Mill Creek
Seminar December 2009. HRWC hosted a seminar providing communities with tools and resources for dam removal decisions.
Seminar Series 2010. HRWC facilitated three regional meetings where eighteen organizations from across the state shared their experiences on dam projects, their hopes for Michigan’s rivers, and recommendations to their peers and the DNR and DEQ for how to “make the grade” for the state’s dam infrastructure. Re*Envisioning Dam Management in Michigan
Inventory Revision 2011-2012. HRWC updated its database of watershed dams by contacting dam owners via mail and phone. Aerial imagery was used to find new dams that had escaped notice previously. Identify and getting contact information for current dam owners was the top priority of this database revision. Huron River Report, Dam-nation.
Dam Removal Prioritization HRWC created a ranking system that prioritizes which dams have the best potential or best reason to be removed, based on social, economic, and ecological data. HRWC has used the list of highly ranked dams to meet with individual dam owners and discuss the results and how HRWC can work with them in improving their dam management. HRWC will continue to explore the possibility of removing dams ranked high on this list. Huron River Report, Dam-nation.
Huron River Dams Network This network connects dam operators, owners and engineers of dams on the mainstem of the Huron River. The group meets periodically and communicates regularly on issues, ideas and operations pertaining to dam management on the Huron.
Small dam owner workshop Anyone who operates, owns or maintains dams, and people who simply care about local rivers, were invited to join guest speakers from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Spicer Group, and HRWC’s in-house experts. Luke Trumble, P.E. from the state’s Hydrologic Studies and Dam Safety Unit, discussed the regulatory framework. Shawn Middleton, P.E. discussed how to conduct your own visual inspection and steps for creating a maintenance plan.