The city of Ann Arbor and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have moved towards resolving a dispute about what needs to be done to address problems with the earthen embankment next to Argo Dam. Late this summer, the MDEQ had issued an order to the city to close off the flow to the headrace and dewater it by Nov. 1. That order was based on concerns about the structural integrity of the earthen berm dating back several years.
The city had retained the law firm Bodman, LLP on the matter, and filed a contested case with the MDEQ, asking for a 90-day stay on the MDEQ’s order, which includes a stoppage of flow in the headrace, and its dewatering.
The order also includes other points, among them a need for the city to make a decision on the dam-in/dam-out question. Whether to keep Argo Dam in place or remove it has been the focus of community-wide conversation on that topic, which has taken place with great intensity over the last nine months, but which has a years-long history.
The MDEQ agreed to the city’s request for a stay on all elements of its order except for shutting the water flow to the headrace. The city has now complied with the MDEQ’s order to close the headrace.
Installation of the Plate
Responsibility for the dam at the city falls to Sumedh Bahl, the unit manager for the city’s water treatment plant. In a phone conversation with The Chronicle, he reported that earlier today around 10 a.m., city workers wedged a metal plate into a concrete slot to stop the flow of water to the headrace.
By the time The Chronicle arrived on the scene, around an hour later, the difference in water levels between the pond side of the plate and the headrace side was already visually apparent. The headrace level looked about two inches lower than the pond level.
Asked for details on the installation of the steel plate, Bahl said that it wasn’t the first time it had been installed – city staff practice that sort of thing on a regular basis. The plate itself was given a fresh coat of paint a few weeks ago in preparation for installation. The color change from orange to green was not aesthetically driven, he said. It just needed a new coat of paint to protect against rust.
Although the water level in the headrace is projected to drop a few feet over the next few days as a result of the outflow near the canoe portage, some water will remain. Removal of that additional water is what the MDEQ’s order to “dewater” affects – and the city now has a 90-day stay on that order.
MDEQ, City of Ann Arbor: Towards Resolution?
Speaking by phone to The Chronicle this morning, Byron Lane, head of dam safety for the MDEQ, said that the city of Ann Arbor’s rationale for requesting the 90-day stay and the MDEQ’s decision to grant it was based on the possibility of gathering additional data on the stability of the earthen berm. The city has hired the firm Stantec to install three piezometers at different points along the berm to measure water pressures inside the earthen structure.
The most recent public action taken by city council was consideration of a resolution brought at its Oct. 19 meeting to perform the maintenance on the earthen berm that the MDEQ has asked the city to complete. That resolution was ultimately tabled, due in part to confusion about whether the intent of the resolution was to decide the dam-in/dam-out question, as well as have the maintenance performed.
Because it was understood by many to reflect a decision on dam-in/dam-out, the resolution was criticized for being introduced without a formal public hearing by the city council. Although there had been formal hearings by the park advisory commission, the environmental commission, as well as various public meetings and a council work session on the topic, there has not been a formal public hearing by the city council itself – something that city staff and community members had a working understanding would happen before a final dam-in/dam-out decision.
Based on city council deliberations at that their Oct. 19 meeting, there is a lack of enthusiasm for legal action as a preferred means of interacting with the MDEQ, and an interest in taking the measures necessary to satisfy the MDEQ’s concerns. But an item on the council’s upcoming Nov. 5 meeting agenda asks for approval of a contract with Bodman for $38,000 for work related to the MDEQ’s safety order.
Based on comments made by Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) at the Oct. 19 meeting, the tabled resolution from the Oct. 19 meeting could come back before council as a single resolution. That resolution would be to de-table the original resolution, amend it with more precise language making clear its intent, postpone it to a date certain, and hold a related public hearing on that date.