The Ann Arbor City Attorney’s Office announced yesterday that it reached a partial compromise with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality over safety concerns regarding the water quality of Argo Dam.
With this agreement, the DEQ agreed to a 90-day stay of its order for the city to either repair or remove the dam. The agreement did, however, also include a temporary, minor fix that had to be made to the dam immediately.
The dam was initially built in 1920 to create hydropower for Ann Arbor. Today, it serves as a barrier to the natural flow of the Huron River, which makes the body of water before it, called Argo Pond, available for recreational activities — like practice for the five Ann Arbor-area rowing teams including the Michigan Men’s Club Rowing Team.
A letter was sent from the DEQ to City Administrator Roger Fraser on Aug. 6 that said the dam’s embankment was in “poor condition due to seepage of water through the earthen embankment and due to the extensive growth of trees and brush on the embankment.”
The letter demanded the city either remove or repair the dam by April 2010, in addition to fixing that minor repair in the dam. It stated that larger repairs must be made by Dec. 31, 2010 or the dam must be removed by Dec. 31, 2012.
DEQ officials had feared the embankment of the pond was at risk of flooding, which City Councilmember Mike Anglin (D–Ward 5) says is no longer a concern because the city can now control the amount of water going into the headrace — or a secondary body of water next to the pond that the dam also funnels water into.
As was previously reported in a Sept. 27 article in The Michigan Daily, DEQ had wanted the flow into the headrace stopped so that “embankment deficiencies” could be better monitored there.
The city was initially given until Nov. 1 to block the flow into the headrace.
The letter sent to Fraser in August resulted in a large debate over whether to remove or repair the dam. The discussion was tabled by City Council in late October, and city officials instead focused on controlling that secondary flow of water from the dam into the headrace.
Community members, including the Michigan Men’s Club Rowing Team — which uses Argo Pond to practice — expressed concern when the possibility of closing the dam was presented in September.
Other individuals and organizations, like the Huron River Watershed Council, advocated for the dam’s removal, citing environmental concerns.
City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said in an interview yesterday that the agreement was a step in the right direction because it helped satisfy the state’s requirements.
“It’s not at all about whether the dam should be in or out, that’s a bigger problem that we aren’t trying to solve right now,” she said. “What we are trying to do is make a compromise with the state.”
Briere added that this is the result with the lowest cost possible, which makes it a good compromise for the city.
She said city officials hope the stop log blocking the embankment is just a “temporary, winter-long setback” and that the plan is for the area to be back to regular use for next year.
“We think we’ll be able to turn this around and give them solid evidence that we’re right before spring,” she said. “I think that will be satisfactory to everybody.”
The city hired a consultant to provide tests to DEQ, which it hopes will demonstrate there isn’t a problem with the headrace where state officials had cited concerns about the embankment. Briere said those results are expected by mid-December, but that the headrace will remain closed in the interim.
Briere said removing the dam would be “a lot more expensive than people think,” but that keeping the dam in place would also have a lot of costs. She stressed the importance of taking the time to make an informed decision, particularly because of the current, difficult economic times.
“But there will be people who want us to act more quickly, reach a conclusion on the river more swiftly,” she said.
Additionally, Anglin said the financial burden of jumping into dam removal is difficult to assess, and if the project were to begin, there would be “no turning back if the river takes a different course (or) if the sediment under the pond has (harmful) chemicals.”
A timeline for when a final decision will be made has not been set, Briere added.
Briere also said the health of the river is something the city must take into consideration in addition to recreational concerns, like whether or not the University’s rowing team can use Argo Pond.