Traverse City Record-Eagle

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December 30, 2012

The Top 10 Stories of 2012

Editor's Note: A dam breach, weird, disruptive weather and a busy year at Traverse City public schools dominated Record-Eagle headlines in 2012. The following earned places among 2012's Top 10 local news stories, based on a poll of newspaper staff.

1) Brown Bridge Dam failure and Boardman River flooding

An effort to remove three decades-old dams from the Boardman River was supposed to be a model for such projects in Michigan and across the nation.

All that changed Oct. 6, when a mishap during the removal of the first structure, the Brown Bridge Dam, caused a 93-acre pond to rush into the Boardman River in a few hours. The torrent of water threatened bridges and public safety, swamped at least 54 properties, and reignited simmering animosity from many who opposed or questioned the project.

"We regret what's occurred," said Sandra Sroonian, senior principal engineer with AMEC and supervisor of the Brown Bridge Dam removal, a comment she made nine days after the flooding. "We want to get (flooded homeowners) back in their homes so they can continue their lives. It's unfortunate this occurred. The ultimate goal is to make things right no matter what the cause."

The tumult of Oct. 6 started just before 10 a.m. The plan was to slowly lower the Brown Bridge Pond into the river through a device known as a dewatering structure. The structure was constructed into an earthen embankment immediately adjacent to the dam, and it was supposed to slowly filter water from the pond, through the structure and into the river over a period of weeks.

But when the structure was engaged to accept water that morning, all hell broke loose. Workers noticed a three-foot drop in water levels upstream, then a sinkhole formed, and the pond quickly drained.

Construction workers scrambled to stem the flow by dumping rocks, concrete and other materials into the river. An emergency evacuation order was issued at 11:45 a.m. as water rose and threatened bridges.

Riverfront homeowner Connie Weese watched helplessly as the Boardman rose and swept away a dock at her residence.

"The water level had gone up about two feet in 25 minutes," Weese said. "I just watched it. In about 25 to 30 minutes, the dock was gone. It was underwater. You could tell it was rising very quickly, so I walked back to the house and grabbed my dog."

Authorities lifted the evacuation order at 4:30 p.m., but some residents who returned home found the flooding threat far from over. Claude Scramlin and his neighbor, Pam Hoyt, watched the river jump its banks at their homes on Boardman Plains Road just before nightfall.

"Instead of having a 20-foot-wide stream, we had a 100-foot-wide stream," Hoyt said. "We saw a raging river crossing the road. It was up to the second step of our porch."

Investigators haven't determined the cause of the breach. State officials notified members of the Boardman River Dams Implementation team that the breach constituted a violation of a permit issued for dam removal, and one veteran engineer questioned the wisdom of using the dewatering structure.

Public anger boiled over at a November meeting on the breach, yet plans continue for the removal of two more dams on the river — the Boardman and the Sabin, with the goal of returning the river to its natural state.

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