Dam Questions Dominate Caucus

Bridges, parking meters and SPARK also get attention

Ann Arbor City Council Sunday night caucus (June 14, 2009): At least 20 people attended the Ann Arbor city council’s Sunday night caucus to provide arguments for keeping the Argo Dam in place. The city council will have a work session on the topic starting at 6 p.m. tonight, before its regularly scheduled meeting, which starts at 7 p.m.

Other topics addressed to the councilmembers who attended caucus included the status of the East Stadium bridge repair, the proposed installation of parking meters in residential areas near the downtown area, and foliage obscuring sight lines along Glazier Way.  The allocation of $75,000 to SPARK, which is on the agenda for Monday, received some discussion in response to a query from The Chronicle.

The three councilmembers remaining at the caucus at its conclusion (Sabra Briere, Mike Anglin and John Hieftje) had little to discuss as far as formulation of questions among themselves. Briere briefly mentioned to Hieftje that she’d had some conversations with councilmembers who were interested in exploring some revisions to council rules – to address emailing policies, among other things.

SPARK Funding

Discussion on the $75,000 of Ann Arbor SPARK funding came at the end of caucus after Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) had departed. As they are the two councilmembers who are likely the best able to speak to the issue, we will incorporate the somewhat unproductive caucus discussion into our report on any deliberations that might take place during the council meeting on the resolution that authorizes the funding.

Not present at caucus was Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), who was recently appointed to the executive committee of SPARK, a nonprofit agency focused on economic development. His perspective as a SPARK executive committee member will presumably be part of the deliberations at the council table as well.

Argo Dam

Council is scheduled to have a formal public hearing on the question of keeping versus removing Argo Dam at its July 6, 2009 meeting. A work session devoted to the topic is scheduled for Monday, June 15, 2009 at 6 p.m.

At Sunday’s caucus, a couple dozen residents gave various arguments in favor of keeping the dam. We present in summary form some of the major points raised. But before launching into that summary, we point out that Joe O’Neal, whose construction company reconstructed the Argo Dam in 1972 (not 1920), prefaced his speaking turn at caucus with the joking announcement that it was an historic occasion – one on which he and Ray Detter agreed on something. Both are in favor of keeping the dam. Also worth noting is that former Ward 1 councilmember Bob Johnson appeared at caucus, in order to advocate for keeping the dam.

Engineering Status of the Dam

Several speakers cited an Other Voices piece written by executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, Laura Rubin, for The Ann Arbor News on May 7, 2009 as problematic, saying that it misrepresented the condition of the dam. In that essay she wrote, “Argo Dam is failing. That’s one reason the City of Ann Arbor is considering removing it. The Michigan DEQ found that part of the dam has deteriorated to the point where it could collapse and has ordered the city to fix or remove it.”

One speaker noted that the assessment of the DEQ report by Matt Naud – who’s the environmental coordinator for the city – is not that the dam is failing or is in poor condition, but rather that a plan needs to be put in place to maintain the toe drains. [Naud has stated at multiple public meetings that the dam is not failing.] Donald Gray and Joe O’Neal, who’ve examined the DEQ report, agree that there’s not an evaluation by the DEQ in the report that the dam is in poor condition. O’Neal’s assessment that the dam is in good condition is based also by his own physical inspection of the dam.

During the caucus discussion, the issue was raised of Mayor John Hieftje’s possible conflicting interests in deciding the question due to his prior status as a board member of the Huron River Watershed Council, and current status as an alternate board member.

In the course of the discussion, Hieftje indicated that his view on the dam had been misrepresented recently in The Ann Arbor News, saying that he had not yet made up his mind on the question of whether to remove it. The confusion had resulted, he said, from the fact that he’d indicated to The News’ reporter that he felt there were viable venues for rowers other than Argo Pond – a body of water that would disappear if the dam were removed.

Alternate Rowing Venues?

Barton Pond has been mentioned frequently as a possible alternative to Argo Pond as a rowing venue for the University of Michigan men’s team and the Huron and Pioneer high school rowing programs, as well as the other rowers who aren’t affiliated with a team. At caucus, a rowing coach made the point that the north-south orientation of Argo Pond protected it from the prevailing winds in a way that the predominantly east-west orientation of Barton Pond did not.

Access by rowers to Barton Pond along Country Club Drive, it was pointed out, would require a “departure from current use” as specified in the agreement between residents of Barton Hills and the city of Ann Arbor. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) elicited from one speaker the fact that a different possible access point – just above the Barton Dam – was not ideal in terms of safety because of the close proximity to the dam.  Further, it was clarified, the water at that location – the end of the pond – was choppier due to the relatively long “fetch,” the expanse of open water over which wind can blow without interruption by land.

Bellville Lake, the venue used by the UM women’s rowing team, was briefly mentioned as a possible alternate venue, but there were unknowns associated with the location of a boathouse.

Sedimentation: Cost of Dredging?

In the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) report, there’s a cost associated with the dredging of Argo Pond specified at $1.8 million – a figure criticized by more than one speaker. It wasn’t clear, they said, that dredging would be required at all on a “dam-in” scenario, because the rate of sedimentation was not known. Topographical maps comparing the river channel historically to its current shape, one speaker contended, showed very little change. That suggested, he said, that dredging might not be required.

Land Aquisition: Monetary Benefit?

The HRIMP report also specifies a major economic benefit for a “dam-out” scenario, which is attributed to the land that would be acquired due to the elimination of Argo Pond: $2.8 million. That economic benefit is the hypothetical cost of purchasing an equivalent amount of park land – which speakers at caucus criticized as not an actual monetary benefit. The benefit would only be realized if the land were sold, which is not being contemplated, they said.

Hieftje allowed that the city was not currently contemplating the acquisition of that amount of park land, nor was it thinking of selling the land, so the dollar amount was somewhat arbitrary. He said that he and other councilmembers viewed all the numbers presented in the HRIMP report with some skepticism and that they would be asking for recalculations in some instances.

Hydropower at the Dam

Payback scenarios for installation of hydropower at Argo Dam were calculated in an initial study and put the period of payback at close to 40 years. Speakers at caucus discussed the possibility that the payback period could be reduced to as little as 20 years if carbon offsets and a retail pricing model for the electricity generated were included.

One speaker explained that under the kind of cap-and-trade system that seems likely to be introduced in the U.S., the  market price for the carbon that is not generated would be be worth 1 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour. Hydropower at Argo could generate an additional $40,000 per year in a carbon market, he concluded.

The electric rate used in the city’s payback model is based on selling the electricity to DTE at a rate of a little over 8 cents per kWh, with a 5% increase each year. The same speaker at caucus who discussed carbon credits pointed to the possibility of selling the electricity on a retail scenario, which is currently around 12 cents per kWh. On such a scenario, power would be supplied directly to homes or businesses close to the dam, or by setting up recharging stations for electric vehicles. More on the specific issue of hydropower can be found in The Chronicle’s report on the city energy commission’s deliberations.

Damping of Peak Flows

One presenter at caucus showed a poster from U.S. Geological Survey data illustrating how the introduction of dams on the Huron River mitigated against peak flows. It is peak flows, he said, that posed the greatest problems as far as downstream erosion.

It’s about the Pond: Backup Water Supply and Built Environment

Besides providing a rowing venue, caucus attendees pointed to other benefits to Argo Pond. One benefit was as a backup water supply for the city of Ann Arbor. (The city now gets 80% of its water from the upstream Barton Pond.)

Another positive aspect of the dam was the historical existence of some kind of dam and a pond dating from 1830, when Anson Brown had built a dam at the location of the current Argo Dam – the built natural environment of a dam with a pond is a major part of the city’s identity.

Voter Referendum on Dam?

In response to a question from the caucus audience, Hieftje indicated that most of the email he’d been receiving on the subject was in favor of keeping the dam.

The Chronicle posed the following question to councilmembers at caucus:

Chronicle: The HRIMP report found that the “dam-in” versus “dam-out” decision “comes down to one of community preference. Both options will require significant investment of capital and operation and maintenance dollars in addition to staff time.” One way to gauge community preference is through a voter referendum on the question. Have you given any thought to putting the question to voters? How would you weigh the merits of putting the question to voters versus deciding the question as a council?

Allowing that she had not previously considered the idea of a voter referendum on the subject, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said, thinking on the fly, that it would be important to specify with great detail exactly what the scenarios were that voters would be voting on. She also said that the outcome of a voter referendum would offer future councils less flexibility to change their mind in light of changing conditions.

For example, if council decided that it would pursue a five-year course of study for dam removal, that a council could at any point elect not to continue down that path. If there were a definitive voter referendum on the matter, then it would not be possible to change course without returning the question to the voters.

E. Stadium Bridge Repair

One resident asked for a status report on several aspects of the E. Stadium bridge repair. When will the drawings for the design be done and ready for citizen input? Will any of the funding come from the $23 million available from the street millage? What about general obligation bonds? Who is going to lead the project?

By “leading the project,” the resident meant to be asking who on council would be adopting the project as their own “baby” to shepherd it through to completion. Hieftje said he felt that it was something that all councilmembers thought was important. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) said that she and her Ward 4 colleague, Margie Teall, considered it to be something they were especially committed to overseeing, given the bridge’s location in Ward 4.

As far as a timeline, Hieftje said that drawings and design were currently being developed. Funding, he said, would be requested at the top of the list for the next federal transportation bill – an effort supported by U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, congressman for Michigan’s 7th District, as well as U.S. Rep. John Dingell, congressman for the 15th District. Hieftje said that such projects were typically not funded by local sources. In response to the resident’s followup question, he allowed that some kind of match by local funds was typically a component – the Broadway bridges were funded with 1/3 local funds and 2/3 state funds.

Parking Meters

Ray Detter, president of the Downtown Citizen’s Advisory Council, spoke at caucus against the introduction of parking meters in residential areas near downtown. Their introduction was approved as a part of the FY 2010 budget adopted recently by the city council.

There are two resolutions related to such meters on Monday’s agenda, which Sandi Smith (Ward 1) has been working on, together with Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5). Smith alerted the monthly meeting of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, held Saturday, June 13, 2009, that she’d be introducing the resolutions at Monday’s meeting.

One gives the green light to installation of parking meters in areas considered to be more commercial. From the resolution, those areas are:

  • East Madison (18 spaces)
  • Depot Street west of Broadway (16 spaces)
  • Depot Street in front of Gandy Dancer (5 spaces)
  • Depot Street Lot (20 spaces)
  • Wall Street (115 spaces)
  • Broadway (4 spaces)

The resolution also requires city staff to receive direction from the council before proceeding with installation of parking meters at any additional locations.

The second resolution on the agenda relating to parking meter installation has to do with the adjustment of rates at the 415 W. Washington parking lot, which were set somewhat lower ($2/hour) when the lot was first opened, because it was thought that the parcel would be quickly  redeveloped – so the pricing strategy focused on making the lot as attractive as possible to drivers.

How are parking rates at 415 W. Washington related to installation of parking meters elsewhere?

If parking meters are not to be installed in all the areas planned by city staff as a part of the FY 2010 budget plan, then the revenue shortfall needs to be addressed. And part of the strategy for addressing that shortfall is – in cooperation with the Downtown Development Authority – to raise the parking rates to $3/hour at 415 W. Washington,  and to revise the revenue-sharing agreement between the city and the DDA so that the city of Ann Arbor would receive the additional revenue.

Here’s a related comic about parking meters.


One resident called councilmembers attention to the fact that along Glazier Way, there was foliage growing so that it obscured sight lines for motorists, creating unsafe conditions for pedestrians. Enforcement of Chapters 40 and 47 in the city code would address those issues, she said. She indicated that she intended to create a website showing who the owner of record was for the offending properties, with links to the Google Streetview locations, reasoning that this might prompt the owners to comply.


  1. By Joe Edwards
    June 15, 2009 at 2:38 pm | permalink

    Payback calculation comparisons for Hydroelectric retrofit


    From the Stantec Study:
    Retrofit Cost = $4,350,000
    Total kWh Generated = 2,000,000
    Cost/kWh = $0.0835
    Value of Electricity = $167,000
    Operational Costs = $(70,000)
    Annual Return on Investment (ROI) = $97,000
    Payback in Years = 45

    From the Potential Community Partner Initial Review:
    Retrofit Cost = $3,045,000 (30% less than Stantec estimate due to bid environment and no need for toe drain repair if mill race is closed and drained)
    Total kWh Generated = 2,000,000
    Cost/kWh = $0.1528 (20 year average cost based on base year cost of $.06/kWh and inflation rate of 8.5%, which assumes current utility cost trends and carbon tax implementation)
    Value of Electricity = $305,600
    Operational Costs = $(70,000)
    Annual ROI = $235,600
    Payback in Years = 13


    From the Stantec Study:
    Retrofit Cost = $4,350,000
    Total kWh Generated 3,350,000
    Cost/kWh = $0.0835
    Value of Electricity = $279,725
    Operational Costs = $(70,000)
    Annual ROI = $209,725
    Payback in Years = 21

    From the Potential Community Partner Initial Review:
    Retrofit Cost = $3,045,000 (30% less than Stantec estimate due to bid environment)
    Total kWh Generated = 3,350,000
    Cost/kWh = $0.1528 (20 year average cost based on base year cost of $.06/kWh and inflation rate of 8.5%, which assumes current utility cost trends and carbon tax implementation)
    Value of Electricity = $511,880
    Operational Costs = $(70,000)
    Annual ROI = $441,880
    Payback in Years = 7

    City council should carefully consider all alternatives for Argo and Geddes Dams, as objectively as possible, before making a final decision on the disposition of these facilities.

  2. By nancy kaplan
    June 15, 2009 at 4:26 pm | permalink

    Why would the city have a referendum on the dam when there was none for the controversial courts/police building and now there is none for the underground parking lot next to the library with a convention center on top?

  3. By mr dairy
    June 15, 2009 at 9:35 pm | permalink


    Probably for a couple of reasons

    1) To suggest that the dam debate is “transparent” (purposely in quotes because nothing is ever transparent on this council. A chastened council wouldn’t want it to be seen as a done deal made in smoke free back rooms without a quorum present. No emails on city computers please.

    2) A distraction to steer discussion away from council email policy, parking structures, convention centers and the lack of transparent debate on those subjects.

    3) Blame Go Ask Voters for the cost of putting the referendum on the ballot.

    Move along… nothing to see here…

  4. By hospadaruk
    June 15, 2009 at 10:15 pm | permalink

    “the built natural environment” is an interesting term to use…

  5. By Patricia Lesko
    June 16, 2009 at 1:20 am | permalink

    Mr. Dairy,

    The GO Ask Voters group is working toward bringing a proposed Charter amendment to the voters. Under the auspices of the amendment, voters would authorize General Obligation Municipal bonds that are repaid in whole or in part by direct taxation. Revenue bonds, emergency bonds and other bonds floated for projects related to infrastructure (sewer and water, for instance) would NEVER be subject to referendum under the auspices of the proposed Charter amendment.

    If, for instance, Council can’t find a private developer to build the proposed conference center, and chose, instead, to float general obligation municipal bonds for the project, if we voted to adopt the proposed Charter amendment, such bonds would have to be approved by voters before they could be issued. Council would have to come to voters with a well-crafted explanation as to why they wanted to spend our money on a conference center. Then, we would vote.

    As I said at our recent Ward 1 meeting, putting such funding requests on the ballot would NOT result in additional costs to the city unless, of course, Council and city staff were so utterly incapable of planning and so thoroughly disorganized that they couldn’t manage to get the request before voters during any one of the FOUR state-mandated dates on which we go to the polls. In essence, state law allows us to vote once every quarter!

    One last note. At that same Ward 1 meeting, Councilmember Sandi Smith raised the point that at the most recent school board election, only 1,200 voters cast ballots. She was afraid that a relatively small number of voters could derail, say, a convention center. What I didn’t point out (for the sake of good manners) is that last August Sandi Smith was delighted to accept the nomination to sit on City Council thanks to the votes of just 900 people out of the 18,000 registered voters who live in the First Ward. Our other Ward 1 Councilmember, Sabra Briere, won her seat with fewer than 350 votes in the primary.

    GO Ask Voters is about transparency in government, the expansion of voter rights, and giving voters an opportunity to participate directly in governance. Voter approval of GO Municipal bonds is the law of the land in 44 states. We’ve collected 2,500 signatures, and we’re on target to bring the proposed amendment to Ann Arbor voters!

  6. June 18, 2009 at 12:25 am | permalink

    Ms. Lesko,

    When your observation – only 900 people voted for Sandi Smith in a contested election, so 1200 votes is an improvement – is directly on point, mentioning your point is not bad manners. On the other hand, withholding your point, in that context, is a failure of public service and democracy.

    I agree with Mr. Dairy’s implied observation that council does not want anyone looking at it or its actions too closely – if at all. This particular theme manifests itself on issues from zoning to PUD’s to the police station to the Staduim Blvd Bridge to the police retirement buyout.

    Mike Anglin’s (5th ward) crime of questioning and opposing the policies of this council has resulted in a crude effort to remove him from office. The only solution to this non-responsive council-majority faction is to remove its members, instead. Shining more light on the policies and behaviors of this majority faction will aid in that effort.

  7. By Feat of Clay
    June 18, 2009 at 2:13 pm | permalink

    Has there been any followup from the HRWC about the fact that its executive director misrepresented facts in a piece in the local paper? That has seriously eroded the organization’s credibility, in my book.

  8. By Laura
    June 19, 2009 at 2:30 pm | permalink

    Some people have said that the dam is in good condition. Why does HRWC say that the dam is failing?

    Part of the dam, specifically the concrete section, is indeed in good condition. Unfortunately, most people believe this is the full extent of the dam. One aspect they are not considering is the toe drain, which is also a part of the dam. The toe drain is covered under the dam permit and all technical descriptions, as are the gates, chains, mill race, mechanics, etc.

    The toe drains are deteriorating and not draining the water in the earthen embankment adequately. These drains reduce the elevation difference, and therefore the water pressure, between the mill race and the river.

    The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is concerned that parts of the earthen embankment will liquefy and fall into the river. The water in the mill race would then rush into the river, carrying loads of sediment with it and creating a “new” channel. This may cause flooding downstream, obstructions and back-ups in the river, and could kill plants and animals.

    Moreover, the MDEQ staff have been dogging the City of Ann Arbor to come up with a plan for the dam for more than five years. Over that same time period, staff and budget cuts have led the MDEQ to publicly announce that it would not be able to respond to minor pollution concerns, review wetland permits, or review minor applications for new permit discharges. In short, MDEQ has been forced to take action only on significant environmental dangers. MDEQ cannot afford to fret about minor problems. The fact that they have expressed this raised level of urgency about Argo dam and the risks associated with an embankment collapse causes the Huron River Watershed Council great concern.
    Smart people have disagreed with HRWC about the level of hazard the dam presents. Some have looked at the sturdiness of the concrete portions and gone so far as to conclude that the dam is in “excellent condition.”

    Some have taken that argument so far as to accuse HRWC of lying about the dam’s condition. They’re both wrong and unfair. Both sides in this debate have looked at available facts and evidence and drawn different conclusions. HRWC stands by its conclusions which are at least as reasonable as concluding, despite the toe drains’ problems, that the dam is in great shape. More important, whatever you call the dam’s condition, the fact remains: a half-million dollar repair job is looming. We have to make a decision now about what to do with this dam.

  9. By Boatman
    June 19, 2009 at 4:37 pm | permalink

    It is unfortunate that HRWC is being disingenuous concerning the condition of the dam and the cost of repair. As you state, a portion of the dam is suspect, essentially the toe drains in the earthen dam next to the millrace. The article written by Ms. Rubin flatly stated; “Argo Dam is failing,” sounds catastrophic at first blush, and yet the article fails to elaborate on what is failing or provide a means of measurement. This sounds somewhat like chicken-little, whose argument that the “sky is falling” was spurious. It is unfortunate that the integrity of the HRWC organization being scrutinized by an approach to Argo was not well reasoned by the author.

    The better problem statement should be similar to this: “the toe drains in the earthen portion of the dam need to be repaired which will have a financial impact on Ann Arbor.” The argument of cost poses somewhat of a conundrum to Ms Rubin. Please consider the added solution of closing off the millrace, which would reduce the immediacy of any threat to the earthen dam. Arguably, this closure might be the cheapest solution. This then begs the question of the cost to repair. You state the repair cost to be $500,000. There are additional voices stating the true cost lies between $200K and $300K, possibly less if the millrace is closed. Your silence on alternative solutions and costs is inopportune, showing both a less then robust analysis on your part as well as adding to the chicken-little style of writing that was evident in the Ann Arbor News.

  10. June 19, 2009 at 9:25 pm | permalink

    Was “Laura” Laura Rubin? Given her position and her authoritative statement, it would be helpful if she identified herself fully. When individuals merely express a personal opinion, I can agree that perhaps an anonymous post is ok (though I don’t prefer them) but it becomes confusing if the comment is representing an “official” position.

  11. By John Charles
    June 30, 2009 at 4:05 pm | permalink

    This letter came from David A. Hamilton, Chief of the DEQ Water Management Section; it was sent to the city of Ann Arbor on November 18, 2004.

    “The inspection report for the Argo Dam identifies problems that may threaten its safety. Specifically, the toe drains along the downstream side of the raceway canal embankment are failing. …The toe drain system should be repaired immediately… These problems were pointed out in our 2001 inspection report, and to date, the City of Ann Arbor has done nothing. The situation has since worsened. …Both of these dams [Argo and Geddes] have high hazard potential ratings.” (emphasis added.)

    That’s straight from the State of Michigan’s Dam Safety Office–five years ago. Nothing’s been done since then to fix it. HRWC’s not making this issue up, or exaggerating it.

    The chronicle posted the letter here:

  12. By Boatman
    July 1, 2009 at 5:29 pm | permalink

    Thank you for clarifying the point, I still believe that the simple solution is to close off the mill race. Where in the analysis from Laura Rubin was this explored? If water is prevented from moving through the mill race, will this end the threat of failed toe drains?

  13. By John Rinne
    July 27, 2009 at 1:39 am | permalink

    The engineering fundamentals of any water system are simple enough anywhere in the world:
    1). A river system needs to have incremental points to safetly contain massive influxes of surface-water flooding, which will also serve as storage points during times of drought.

    2). The inclusion of hydro-electric generating capability is also one of security, and long-term investment.
    What is more important to a city’s pysche/economy than a consistent supply of water, and(limited)electricity for emergency use?

    This subject is new(please forgive any ignorance), but it seems like the deterioration of the mill gates was due to long-term city negligence, and/or poor initial construction, and it is now a problem.
    The taxpayer argument now seems to have been reduced into whether or not to charge UM students on the rowing team permits to pay for the entire reconstruction…..huh? The city throws millions left and right.

    Have any typographical studies been done?
    Are there better local areas along the Huron to potentially contain large amounts of water besides Argo?

  14. By jcp2
    July 27, 2009 at 12:49 pm | permalink

    I think typographical studies should be taken care of by the editor.