What To Do About The Mill Pond?

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One of the most pressing issues facing American politics, economics and society today is how to fix, expand and upgrade infrastructure. Put that in a local Salinian context, and one of the major issues facing City Council is what to do with the Mill Pond dam.

“I think that we’re a long way off from making a decision,” City Councilor Kevin Camero-Sulak told this newspaper in an interview by phone.

Council was presented with three basic options at its September 20 work meeting:

  1. Do nothing, just go ahead with repairs.
  2. Spend anywhere from $300,000 to $3,000,000 to completely rebuild a more substantial spillway.
  3. Remove the dam at a cost that could range anywhere from $1,000,000 to $3,000,000.

No formal decision was made at Monday’s meeting and no money was spent. But council did vote unanimously to tell city staff to prepare a more formal version of the first option.

The city may or may not expand or remove the dam, but they agreed that making the necessary repairs was inevitable. City staff is now working on establishing the cost of option one. Current estimates range widely from $100,000 to $500,0000. This will be brought before the Council again next month.

Engineering experts say that the dam doesn’t currently provide any practical service – like providing the city with fresh water or hydroelectric power – but is merely decorative. City Engineer Jeff Fordice is expecting the state of Michigan to beef up its safety standards in response to the horrible flooding in the Midland area last year. The current dam, which Fordice said was built in 1973, would likely not meet those standards.

“Option two is centered around increasing the dam’s capacity to safely pass high storm flows. Exactly how that would be done requires further study,” Fordice said in an email to the Sun Times News. “But lowering the spillway, which would lower the pond level, and adding additional spillway were discussed in the memo. During the meeting we also talked about a more sophisticated moveable spillway that could maintain the current pond level and increase capacity. That option has not been costed.”

This is because the cost to expand the spillway mechanism varies so widely because of the wide range of sizes that the city could purchase, and the way the mechanism works. Whether the spillway gates open at the top of the dam or the bottom will change potential costs significantly.

Fordice said that if the dam is removed, it would be unlikely to effect downriver communities that much since the dam is essentially a speed bump, not a wall, for the Saline River. Councilor Janet Dillon expressed concern for the property values of houses like hers, that are near the pond.

The elephant in the room of course is how to pay for all of this. Saline’s State Senator Jeff Irwin said that while there are grant programs to remove or repair dams, there just isn’t enough money in the program to meet all of Michigan’s needs. Irwin is part of a group of Democrats that has introduced legislation that would, in part, change that, but it is yet to reach committee.

Republican State Senator Jon Bumstead proposed a $680 million revolving fund to repair dams last summer. Bumstead’s plan isn’t as much as what Irwin and his colleagues are proposing, but he said he was confident that both parties could reach a bipartisan compromise to provide the funds.

“In general, if you look at the Republican proposal and the Democratic proposal, the Republican proposal focuses more on dam repair, whereas the Democratic proposal focuses on dam removal. But both proposals include support for local communities that are looking to take care of their dams. I think that’s a really good sign of the trajectory that we’re on,” Irwin said.

Irwin said that now that the state budget has been passed and the state is considering how to spend federal stimulus dollars on projects that have long been put off because of their high cost, it was most likely that future funding will be made available in one form or another. As an environmentalist, Irwin says that he prefers dam removal in most situations, but he isn’t married to that option.

“As a state senator for Saline, I am going to take my direction from the city. If the city is interested in pursuing repair, I am going to make sure the city has the best access to those resources,” Irwin added. “If the city is interested in removal, I will do my best to get them the best access to that.”

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