City, MDEQ Agree: Argo Headrace Shut

State grants 90-day stay on dewatering
Argo Dam headrace closure

Argo Dam headrace closure. Without the metal plate, water would flow from left to right (bottom to top) in the photograph. The greenish metal plate is wedged into the concrete slot in shim-like fashion. The slot continues along to the bottom of the channel. (Photo by the writer).

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.

Water level difference at Argo

To the left of the green metal plate is the pond-side water level. To the right is the headrace side. The photograph, from the perspective looking down into the headrace gate, was taken about an hour after installation, and shows that the water level in the headrace is dropping. (Photo by the writer.)

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.

[The most recent earlier Chronicle coverage: "Finally a Dam Decision on Argo?" and "Still No Dam Decision"]


  1. By Bob Martel
    November 2, 2009 at 4:16 pm | permalink

    I can’t believe the City is going to spend $38,000 on legal fees related to this latest interaction with the State. That is unconscionable!! Who knows how many other legal and engineering fees have been spent over the years while the City “fiddles” as Rome burns? In the scheme of things, this is a relatively small issue and the City should have shown some leadership many many months if not years ago and taken care of this.

  2. By Luvs2Row
    November 2, 2009 at 4:20 pm | permalink

    I’m thrilled by the out-pouring of my fellow rowers’ support for this issue, but saddened that alternatives to rowing at Argo Pond have still not been (publicly) explored. Argo Dam and its earthen extension are an eyesore compared to “what could be” [Link]. With alternatives for rowing–impoundments and area lakes–we can open up new opportunities for our student and community athletes, while restoring Ann Arbor’s downtown waterway to be more aesthetically pleasing and diverse in its recreational offerings.

  3. November 2, 2009 at 4:26 pm | permalink

    A de-watered headrace, a weed-choked impoundment, a river that is altered so badly by a dam that it turns 90-degrees–hey I guess it can’t get any worse for the Huron River in Ann Arbor.

    But conditions can improve.

    Removing Argo Dam and undergoing a restoration of the Argo-stretch of river will solve the infrastructure maintenance issue once and for all. The results will benefit thousands of residents and visitors, and provide the city with new means of generating revenue through year-round recreation.

  4. By Boatman
    November 2, 2009 at 4:49 pm | permalink


    Just a quick point or two regarding your comment above.
    I disagree with your opinion “a weed choked impoundment”, during my travels on Argo Pond, I did not and do not see the condition you avidly point out.
    The 90-degree turn is a condition often seen on rivers, at least the rivers in Michigan that I have traveled, these by definitions are are “Ox-bows”, and in fact, these are often up to 180-degree switchbacks.
    Finally, the current pond already serves thousands of residents of Ann Arbor and visitors from out of town such as yourself.

    FYI; I was on the pond yesterday, it was wonderful.

  5. By RiverViewer
    November 2, 2009 at 6:57 pm | permalink

    Argo pond is used before sunup till after sundown during the fall and spring seasons…The realistic alternative is a 25 minute drive to Belleville/Ford Lakes during rush hour for the hundreds of high school, college and club rowers who are at Argo daily, weather permitting… Their daily presence on the water brings a beauty and grace unmatched by a gaggle of weekend kayakers who would have a few weeks of spring runoff to eke out a few moments of excitement.
    From the images presented on what the area would look like if the dam were removed I have a tough time understanding how 50 additional yards of marshy wetlands are more aesthetically pleasing than current wetland/open water we have now. At least now, one can sit and rest by waters edge for the most part…without hip boots.

  6. By John Floyd
    November 2, 2009 at 11:03 pm | permalink

    Now, at least we know why the city does not have $38,000 to make public the last several years of council’s e-mail traffic: they are spending it avoiding the consequences of not taking care of business previously.

  7. November 3, 2009 at 9:50 am | permalink

    The rowers can vouch for my statement about the summer-time presence of weeds in Argo Pond. Seasonal weed management is something the teams/clubs do to make rowing possible. The condition may not be apparent from shore.

    I agree with you that rivers bend, but not at such a dramatic, unnatural fashion as the Huron at Argo Dam. An oxbow is a cut-off portion of a river caused (over time) when a river meaders. There is no meander at Argo Dam–it’s impossible. For a well-informed visual prediction of the course of the Huron River with Argo Dam removed, please spend some time inspecting these sites:

    Excerpt from U of M student study: Link to .PDF file

    Recent renderings released by HRWC: Link to .PDF file

  8. By Boatman
    November 3, 2009 at 12:16 pm | permalink


    Good day to you. Just to let you know, my perspective is from the water, not from the shore. When you get a chance, please help me understand your definition of “weed choked” it seems to run contrary to your statement that the rowing community is managing the weeds. Your clarification of this point in your earlier argument is germane to the point you seem to be trying to make.

    Thank you for the links, however, I am confused with the position you are trying to support. The visual predictions are apparently artist’s renderings of a hoped for future. I must say that the drawings appear to be a panacea for the Huron River and its flow. I have my doubts of the accuracy of these predictions, although the drawings are interesting and truly show the author’s dreams.

    At any rate, I believe it might be a more relevant argument to consider the topography of the river corridor combined with the current buildings and infrastructure that exist today along the shores. At the end of the day, I believe your initial argument supports your bias toward removal of the dam to the detriment of the current population that uses the river for fishing, paddling, rowing, personal reflection, walking, photography, etc. and instills a financial burden the folks who live in Ann Arbor and not on you.

  9. November 3, 2009 at 5:03 pm | permalink


    I respect that you have first-hand experience with the conditions in Argo Pond. I think it will benefit readers if you would share your thoughts specific to aquatic vegetation and any management, if necessary, that users must do to recreate on the pond.

    My observations are that weed growth occurs most heavily during summer months. I’ve used the word “choke” to describe these conditions and by that I mean that navigating the pond by canoe or kayak necessitates contending with the vegetation. The aquatic weeds are a nuisance to paddles as they would be to propellers on an outboard motor.

    In commenting in these forums, my position is that dam removal will be a benefit to current and future users who will prefer a free-flowing section of river to one that is impounded. Out-of-town users like myself will help your community off-set the cost of removal by supporting local businesses, paying user fees, and feeding Ann Arbor’s famous parking meters. I’d be interested in seeing an estimate for the per-resident cost of dam removal and restoration, since this is often present in anti-removal arguments.

  10. By Boatman
    November 4, 2009 at 3:12 pm | permalink


    Thank you for your acknowledgement and for your definition of weed choked, I can see how there might be a misunderstanding of definition. These are important points to begin a conversation about Argo Pond.

    I do have some food for thought regarding the current users of the pond. I will start with canoe and kayak paddlers. There are a variety of paddlers, watercraft and skill levels. I would say that the Pond serves a group of paddlers who would not otherwise attempt a boat ride. These paddlers are novices, folks who have never paddled before or infrequently. They are most comfortable on Argo Pond.

    Next are the rowers, based on the sizes of rowing shells; the teams have limited water options due to the infrastructure required. Rowing shells range from 26 feet to 65 feet in length. Storage and handling practices are critical. A safe boathouse, safe accesses to the water and loads of training on care for equipment are hallmarks of the rowers I have met. The amount of so-called rowable water is very limited in the Ann Arbor area especially when the size of the boats is considered. Keep in mind you cannot store the boat in your garage or in the case of large boats, carry them on the roof of your car.

    In my time on Argo, I have come to know many of these rowers both young and old. They work hard at rowing, and display huge amounts of teamwork and camaraderie. I say this to put a face of the 600 souls who have a passion for rowing. To have the dam removed would have a lasting negative effect on rowing in Ann Arbor especially on the high school and college kids. Have you met the wheelchair bound rowers? Have you witnessed the visually impaired rower on the water? The shear joy of not being shackled to a cane or a wheelchair must be almost overwhelming.

    My question to you is whether you have considered the impact to these people in your pursuit to remove the dam?

  11. November 4, 2009 at 3:19 pm | permalink

    I don’t know about “weed choked”, but there certainly are a lot of dead floating trees in the millrace.

  12. By Dave
    November 11, 2009 at 11:53 am | permalink

    I love all of the hyperbole from the tiny, very loud minority (i.e. rowers).

    People: the dam is coming out. It is undeniably for the greater good.

    Accept it and move on.

  13. By Rod Johnson
    November 11, 2009 at 6:51 pm | permalink

    How do you know it’s a tiny minority? Enlighten us as to your survey methods. As for your assurance the dam is coming out–what other future events do you know about? Who’s going to win the Kentucky Derby?