Traverse City Record-Eagle

Boardman River flood

October 9, 2012

Editorial: Flood demands explanation

The Grand Traverse region lost no life or limb during Saturday's unnerving breach of Brown Bridge Dam and emptying of Brown Bridge Pond.

But make no mistake: the flood that coursed downstream through the Boardman River basin fully qualifies as a disaster. Only the extent of damage --- to property and to the notion of restoring the Boardman to pristine, pre-industrial conditions — remains to be determined.

This could have been a calamity for riverside dwellers, the community at large and the phalanx of government and business interests who for years pushed the plan to remove three dams along the Boardman watershed. Thankfully, damage appears to be "limited" to flooding of several dozen homes downstream from Brown Bridge Dam and the flushing onto residential properties, woodlands, marshes, and waterways of who knows how much contaminated sediment that accrued for decades on Brown Bridge Pond's murky bottom.

It's still not known, at least publicly, what caused the sudden discharge of untold millions of gallons of water and sludge from Brown Bridge Pond. Early indicators point to a perhaps ironically named "dewatering structure" erected adjacent to the dam, a device that was supposed to manage water flow from the pond into the Boardman River at a foot-a-day rate. The plan was to drain the pond's 22 feet of water in three weeks.

Instead, Saturday morning's failure — and it's most certainly rooted in human error tied either to engineering, construction or both --- flushed the pond into the Boardman at breakneck speed. It's most fortunate that downriver Sabin and Keystone ponds previously had been lowered. Who knows what would have happened to their accompanying dams --- Sabin and Boardman — and beyond if the Brown Bridge gusher had no resting place.

It's in such moments of crisis that bureaucrats and politicians often head for the hills or adopt a cover-your-act posture. The public shouldn't stand for it here. For years, local government officials who wanted the aging dams off their hands and promoters of the Boardman River Restoration Project assured the public, sometimes smugly, that they knew exactly what they were doing.

Naysayers either were self-interested or simply couldn't grasp the benevolent enormity of the project, they sniffed.

Now promoters and pols need to step up and offer full explanations for who, what, how and why, including who's going to pay for residential and public damages and cleanup.

The Boardman flood shouldn't quash the overall project, but it most certainly casts doubt on the competencies of its various players, including planners, engineers and contractors. Their roles in the flood must be examined, not excused, their continued involvement questioned, not guaranteed.

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