Dam discussion

Stakeholders come together to devise solution

Jim Brennan, chairperson of the Michigamme River Basin Authority, is assisted by Stephanie Oakley as they close the Michigamme River Dam. Over a dozen stakeholders and local lawmakers came together in Marquette on Friday to discuss the fate of the dam and water level in the Michigamme River Basin. (Photo courtesy of Kim Caliguri Isaacson)

REPUBLIC — A group of government officials and stakeholders met Friday to discuss long- and short-term solutions for issues surrounding the condition and operation of the Republic Dam.

The central issues discussed were the condition of the dam itself and the adverse affect of closing the dam gates to property owners located downstream.

Attending the meeting were representatives of the Republic Sportsman’s Club; the Michigamme River Basin Authority; Republic Mountain Lake LLC, the owner of the dam; Sen. Tom Casperson; the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality; and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division; as well as property owners, municipal and county officials and other stakeholders.

The meeting reportedly ended overall on a positive note, with a proposed second meeting slated for January.

Ryan McCone, senior environmental analyst for the DEQ, said there was constructive dialogue among attendees.

“The meeting also provided a valuable opportunity to discuss not only the challenges of this complex situation, but also how those involved can work together to find a clearer path forward,” McCone said. “I believe it was a positive step toward improved communications between the applicant, local officials and the state officials and agencies involved.”

Marty Fittante, staff member for Casperson, said the meeting was a first step in striking the delicate balance between the needs of the community, the environment and all users of the dam.

“Very broadly we agreed on what a short-term solution might be, and what a long-term solution will be. Now comes the hard part,” Fittante said. “But I think participants came away with a sense of optimism because we all pledged to work together to get there.”

Dam history

For nearly 100 years water levels in the Michigamme River Basin were manipulated as part of mining operations at the Republic Mine. The basin’s artificially elevated water levels three to nine months of the year have become part of the natural order of things for many Republic Township residents and summer visitors.

In order to ensure higher water levels, the dam gates have been typically closed each year from May through October since 1990, the inaugural year of the Republic Fishing Derby, which has annually created an economic boon for the township.

The dam was maintained and operated by Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. from the initial closure of the Republic Mine, in 1981, until 2006, when the property was purchased by Republic Mountain Lake LLC. For several years after purchasing the property, RML employees operated the dam as a courtesy to the township, according to Marquette County Commissioner Joe Derocha, whose district includes the Republic area.

Republic Township took on the task of monitoring and operating the dam a few years later, then transferred responsibility for it to the Michigamme River Basin Authority.

The MRBA leased the property from RML for $3,000 annually, with day-to-day operation of the dam handled by the sportsman’s club.

Over the course of time, several attempts by township officials or the MRBA to strike a purchase deal with either CCI or RML failed for one reason or another, sources say.

DEQ timeline

Not everyone has benefited from closing the dam’s gates in order to increase basin water levels, according to an MDEQ report provided by McCone.

MDEQ began to receive complaints in 2014 from residents who live downstream of the dam, as well as recreational users such as kayakers, canoers and anglers, the report states.

“The subject of these complaints is generally low water levels in the Michigamme River below the Dam during times when the dam’s gates were fully closed in order to increase upstream impoundment water levels,” the report states.

Republic Sportsman’s Club representative and MRBA board member Jim Brennan said the parties involved had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the DEQ regarding the complaints.

“We wanted more information on where the complaints came from and the nature of those complaints,” Brennan said. “We are still looking for more information on that.”

In addition to the complaints, a 2015 inspection conducted by an engineering consultant hired by RML revealed that the dam has a “significant hazard” potential based on residential and other developments downstream, according to the report.

The inspection determined the vertical steel gates to be heavily corroded and in poor condition, and portions of the concrete structure to be heavily deteriorated, according to DEQ information.

Based on the complaints, subsequent documentation and mine inspection information, the DEQ issued a violation notice to Republic Mountain Lake in January for past operation of the dam without the appropriate permit.

Both Republic Township officials and the MRBA were notified of the violation in February.

RML was notified of the permit requirement, and advised that the “unauthorized activity cease, and required that the dam gates remain open pending authorization by permit.”

The MRBA responded to the DEQ in February, and subsequently submitted a permit application in May, and the DEQ responded that same month requesting additional information not included in the initial permit application.

During a June 2 inspection, DEQ officials noted all gates were open and in compliance.

A subsequent joint inspection conducted on June 6 by the DEQ and the DNR Fisheries Division revealed that all three dam gates had been closed, causing the dam to be out of compliance.

Both RML and the MRBA denied involvement in the gate closures, the report states, and the MRBA agreed to immediately reopen the gates.

“(MRBA) went on to report its locks had been cut from the mechanical gate controls. This suggested third party tampering with the dam,” the report states.

In the meantime, MRBA requested — and was granted — a 30-day time extension until July 24 to provide the additional information needed to complete the permit application.

On July 19, DEQ Director C. Heidi Grether issued a modification of the issued violation notice allowing temporary dam operation from July 19 until midnight on July 23, allowing the Republic Fishing Derby to occur.

The MRBA has asked for extensions since the fishing derby, and by Oct. 23 the DEQ began the process of re-engaging the MRBA regarding the submitted dam operation permit application.

As to why the dam has been operated without a permit for the last 26 years, McCone said the complaints brought the lack of permit to light.

He also noted that no grandfather clause exists in the statute regarding dam operation within the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, which governs both dam safety and environmental impacts.

McCone said regular dam inspections by a DEQ dam safety engineer over the years would have overseen the safety of regulated dams, but would not deal directly with the environmental impacts of dam operation to associated resources such as streams, rivers, wetlands, etc., therefore a permit to operate, or lack thereof would not have been considered as part of that process.

McCone said the DEQ must take into account environmental impacts as well as fairness to all property owners.

“Waters of the state are held in public property, and riparian property owners both upstream and downstream have equal rights to that water; in other words they’re equal,” McCone said. “It was long before 1994 that statute authorization to impact regulated water resources became necessary. In the case of Republic Dam, that issue just never seemed to come to light till recently.”

Possible solutions

The MRBA is working to find a solution to safety concerns brought up by the private inspection in 2015, Brennan said.

“We are working with the DEQ to see what would satisfy them and we are looking into the possibility of patching the gate holes with steel plates,” Brennan said. “Based on the meeting, it sounds like there may be certain funds available to the property owner.”

The long-term goal would include the MRBA purchase of the property the dam is on, rehabilitation of the existing structure or the creation of a spillway in place of it at some point in the future, Brennan said. The major immediate concern, he said, is a wetlands mitigation plan study, which is required for the DEQ operating permit.

“That could run in the thousands of dollars, for a dam that has been operated since the mine closed without a permit,” Brennan said.

Economic impact

Solving the problems associated with the dam in an equitable fashion for all parties is crucial for Republic Township, surrounding municipalities and economic development of the area, Commissioner Derocha said.

Derocha said state investment in projects like the Iron Ore Heritage Trail trailhead and Munson Park may be negated if the problem is not solved.

“Let’s not forget, the state of Michigan and the DNR have spent roughly $400,000 on recreation in the Republic area,” Derocha said. “Without the water, there is no sustaining that.”

He said without the dam maintaining the water level in the basin, state equalized property values along the water could be severely diminished.

“That would not be good for the community,” Derocha said.

Potential development in the township could be contingent on whether the dam is allowed to continue operations as well, Derocha said, making it incumbent on all sides to devise a solution that supports sustainability in the area.

“That water is the life-blood of Republic Township,” Derocha said. “There are good people on all sides of this, and an amicable solution has to be worked out for the good of the community.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.