Traverse City Record-Eagle

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October 19, 2012

Boardman flood: 911 call warned of water release

Project workers recovered 300 dead fish near the dam

TRAVERSE CITY — A city employee was the first to warn of Boardman River flooding as pond waters breached Brown Bridge dam.

In a call to Grand Traverse County 911 dispatchers he warned, "people should get off the creek."

Ken Gregory, an assistant director of Traverse City's Department of Public Services, called dispatchers the morning of Oct. 6 to report that a pond was dumping its contents into the Boardman River during construction on the Brown Bridge Dam.

"Can you get a hold of the emergency manager?" Gregory tells dispatchers. "We have a breach of Brown Bridge Dam. They put a structure in, and we are allowing more water out than we should. I don't think it's critical, but just to let people know downstream we are going to have a lot more water, muddy water, coming down than we should normally, and that people should get off the creek."

Dispatcher: "So you are at the Brown Bridge Dam and there's a breach in the Dam or it's just "¦ overflow?"

"Well there's a ... structure next to it," Gregory responded. "A dewatering device, and there seems to be somewhat of a failure of that. So we are sending more water down than we should."

Gregory told the dispatcher to notify Dan Scott, Grand Traverse County's emergency manager director, of potential flooding.

"And so we are possibly going to have flooding," the dispatcher said. "Minor flooding or major?"

Gregory responded, "Uh, we are not sure at this time. Probably, we are not sure ... I don't know, mid-major?"

"Somebody should check the road crossings at Garfield (Road) and some of the other ones and make sure there isn't any deterioration and stuff like that," Gregory said. "There's some bridge crossings, so I don't know if you've got train coming through or railroad bridge."

Gregory appears to be the only person to call 911 in the two hours following the dam breach. The resulting flooding raised the river five feet and caused damage to at least 53 properties downstream. The breach occurred as Molon Excavating and an engineering firm, AMEC, worked to remove the dam — part of a long-term project to remove three Boardman River dams.

An investigation into what caused the pond to release into the river appears focused on the failure of a dewatering structure built adjacent to the dam.

The structure was supposed to slowly release water into the river over a period of weeks. Instead, the pond breached the structure and raced into the river in a matter of hours.

Frank Dituri and Steve Largent were among Boardman River Implementation Team members at the dam at the time of the breach.

"One stop log had been taken out, and about 10 to 15 minutes later, the breach occurred," Largent said.

Project workers recovered 300 dead fish above and below Brown Bridge Dam after the flood. About 85 to 90 percent of the fish were warm water species from the pond, according to preliminary figures reported Thursday morning at a Boardman River Dams Implementation Team meeting.

Forty-three painted turtles were rescued and relocated.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials continue to collect data and will issue a final number on fish kills once all reports are gathered.

Other post-breach data is being collected on water quality, sediment depths, and aquatic insects to determine the effects of the flood on wildlife and the river.

On Thursday afternoon, several members of the Dams Implementation Team praised AMEC and Molon Excavating for their response to the public safety threat. There was no discussion about halting the dam removal project in light of the failure.

"We are working as a group with Molon to go find the facts with the temporary dewatering structure," said Joe Caryl, a construction manager with AMEC. "It's going to take time."

Nate Winkler, a biologist with project umbrella organization Conservation Resource Alliance, said "AMEC and Molon have been just exceptional to work with ... they responded to the incident with the utmost professionalism. I just want to recognize that. I still believe we have the right team in place. You guys are great."

Jim Pawloski, a dam safety investigator with the state Department of Environmental Quality, said he's committed to finding what caused the breach. He'd previously said it could prove difficult to find cause because evidence from the breach had washed downstream.

"We are going to find a technical reason for what happened," said Pawloski. "That's my job. I don't have any other marching orders at this point."

Rick Westerhof of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency will continue to fund the program.

"We still support the program, we want to see the project done, we want to see other dams done," Westerhof said, adding "everybody has a hiccup here and there. It certainly could have been worse."

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