Emotions Run High Over Dam Removal Questions

  • The Argo Dam was first built as a hydroelectric dam in 1914. Detroit Edison decided it wasn't worth the investment and sold it to Ann Arbor in 1963. (Photo by Mark Brush)

There are close to two hundred hydroelectric dams in Michigan, and almost half of those stopped making power a long time ago. Many of these dams are getting old and they need attention. The communities that own these dams are faced with a decision: pay to fix them, or pay to take them down. As Mark Brush reports it’s a decision that often stirs people’s emotions.

Map of Hydroelectric Dams in Michigan (pdf)

The Ann Arbor Chronicle on Argo Dam

The City of Ann Arbor on Argo Dam

More about Rowing on Argo Pond (pdf)

“Why remove Argo Dam?” from the HRWC

“The Ballad of Argo Dam” by Dave Barrett


(Sound of Argo Dam)

The controversy around Argo Dam in Ann Arbor started when the State’s Dam Safety Program said there were problems were with the embankment next to the dam. The repair costs were estimated to be up to $300,000.

Laura Rubin is standing next to the dam on the Huron River. Rubin is the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, and she wants to take this dam out. She says taking the dam out would save the city money in the long run. She says it will also return the river to a more natural state, and would be better for fish and wildlife. Rubin says when she looks at the pond made by the dam, she doesn’t see good things.

“When I look at Argo Pond I see really a stinky, stagnant, non-oxygenated pond. It’s not really functioning. Other people look at it as, you know, this beautiful pond that they go down to. And it’s really, that’s just one of perspective, and sort of your background and your training.”

The people who like the dam accused Rubin and the Watershed Council of overhyping the problems with the dam, and with Argo Pond. The people most outspoken were the members of a local rowing club.

Rubin and others in favor of taking the dam out said the rowers could find better places to row on the Huron River, and the city could pay for the move.

Mike Taft is a coach for the Huron High School rowing team. He and many of the other rowers said the other places just wouldn’t work.

“You know my kids grew up here and this is where we spent our time. So, you can find what you want on various stretches of this river, and this is a one of a kind the way it is.”

Some environmentalists accused the rowers of digging their heels in – of not considering other options. Taft feels that accusation is unfair.

“I think this is not about the rowers. I think it’s about the Watershed Council pursuing their absolute aim here, which is to take out this dam.”

People with the Watershed Council say they do want the dam out, but they say they respect the rowers concerns.

The city of Ann Arbor put together a committee to help them with the decision. They held meetings and heard from some experts. They came to agreement on a lot of other issues about the river, but on the Argo Dam they just couldn’t agree.

Steve Yaffee is an expert on ways to manage environmental conflicts. He’s written extensively about the Spotted Owl case out west and he facilitated some of the Argo Dam meetings. He says in hindsight, he felt like the process could have been better informed. He thought it would have helped to have outside experts weigh in on the questions about science and about the alternatives for rowers.

“Because I think the rowing interests weren’t convinced that there were environmental benefits. And the environmentalists weren’t convinced that there weren’t options for the rowers. And if you’re not convinced of that, why work with that.”

Yaffee says for communities facing these big controversies it’s important for all the parties to first sit down and talk broadly about what they want for their community. He says it’s also important to have some creative thinkers at the table. People who can articulate a vision for the future and can come up with solutions.

For now, the city is planning to keep the dam. If it does, taxpayers will probably have to pay close to half a million dollars in repair and maintenance costs in the next several years, and for many cities with tight budgets money is often what ultimately drives their final decision of whether or not to keep a dam.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.