RAPID RIVER — Kalkaska County leaders hired an engineering firm to study, assess and develop a report on the Rugg Pond Dam in Rapid River Township to help the community determine whether to keep the dam or tear it out.

Rugg Pond is a natural area in northwest Kalkaska County that Rapid River and Little Rapid River intersect at. According to the Kalkaska County website, Rugg Pond is formed by a dam that was built by Kalkaska Light and Power Company in the early 1900s to power the nearby community.

It’s been years since the dam generated power for the area, but the pond and the natural area surrounding it remain a gathering place for the community and a Michigan Historic Site.

“It’s really uncommon to go there when there’s not somebody already there pulling in,” said Matt Brenner, the chair of the Rugg Pond Dam steering committee and a Rapid River Township Trustee.

Local legend says that Ernest Hemingway once spent a night fishing at Rugg Pond.

But recently, the pond has been filling with sediment, and it’s clear the dam is in need of repairs. It will soon be up to the Kalkaska County Commission to decide if the county government can afford to repair and maintain the dam or if it makes more sense for them to take the dam out completely.

As they do every three years, representatives from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) recently assessed the Rugg Pond Dam and found that the dam’s side slopes were too steep and some of its concrete is deteriorating. EGLE also determined that the county will need to create an emergency action plan for the dam.

The county paid $63,000 to hire Spicer Group, an engineering firm, to assess and study the dam and create a report with estimates on the cost to repair or tear out the dam, said Bob Baldwin, a Kalkaska County commissioner and member of the Rugg Pond Steering Committee.

The report will also provide recommendations for the dam for the next 50 years and what upkeep on the dam will look like.

Charles Smith, a Spicer Group project engineer, said his team will review all existing records for the dam and conduct a full topographical survey, a baseline environmental site assessment and a hydraulic analysis on the dam.

According to michigan.gov, there are over 2,500 dams in Michigan. They each have to be inspected every three to five years based on how potentially hazardous they are.

Spicer Group previously worked on the Lake Kathleen Dam in Emmet County, which was taken out in 2018 after a years-long push from local conservation groups to return Maple River to its original, free-flowing state, according to reporting from the Petoskey News-Review.

Smith said he couldn’t comment on what Spicer Group’s final report at Rugg Pond will look like and how expensive repairs may be, but if the dam were to be removed, Rugg Pond would likely be lowered and returned to a riverine. Figuring out how else dam removal would impact the area will also be a part of Spicer Group’s study, he said.

Once the study is done, the steering committee will hold a town hall to hear from community members and present the results of the study, Brenner said.

Baldwin and Brenner are unsure what the community sentiment towards the dam will be, but the steering committee’s goal is to keep the dam and repair it in order to maintain the integrity of the surrounding natural area.

“It’s a wonderful place to go to,” Baldwin said. “It would be a shame to lose it, but we’re losing some of its effectiveness or its attractiveness with (the silt) building up.”

Baldwin said he’s unsure what the feelings of the other county commissioners are on the dam, but he thinks the costs of repair or removal will be a deciding factor in what they will vote on.

“Kalkaska County is not a very wealthy county,” Baldwin said. “If we have to spend, you know, a million dollars to fix the dam or whatever that number is, you know, we’re going to need help to make that workable.”

The steering committee will seek out grants from the state to supplement the costs of the dam repair and maintenance if that’s the direction community support is in as well, but there is more money from the state for dam removal than there is for dam repair, Baldwin and Brenner said.

In the past two years since a disaster in Midland involving two dams, there has been more of a focus on better understanding existing dams and what maintenance they require, Smith said.

In May 2020, two dams near Midland in mid-Michigan failed to hold back extreme floodwaters, resulting in more than $200 million in property damage and the evacuation of more than 10,000 people.

An investigation into the dam failures found that they were “foreseeable and preventable” by any organization involved.

The fallout from that disaster also led the state government to create a Dam Safety Task Force and more avenues for dam owners to get funding for dam repair. In the 2022 state budget, state lawmakers in Lansing added $19 million for dam safety.

In April, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also signed legislation — SB 565 — that promises to provide millions to dam risk reduction around the state as well.

Smith’s team is only just getting started on their assessment at Rugg Pond Dam, which he said may take around two months to complete.

“The dam is a historical site. It has a lot of benefits to the county, aesthetically and recreationally,” Smith said. “We’re looking into what it’s going to take to maintain the dam and bring it up to today’s standards and report back to the county and then review any potential alternatives that may ultimately save the county funds.”

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