Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Displacing a problem doesn't solve it: an example of how restrained regulation can cost millions of dollars | Flooding in Mid-Michigan from a dam break

Scenario planning.  I have a review copy of Rob Goodspeed's Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertainties (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, April 2020) to read.

It seems all the more timely given the pandemic failure ("Covid-19: did the UK government prepare for the wrong kind of pandemic?," Guardian).

Risk management.  But there are plenty of other examples of failure such as the Boeing 737Max, the breaching of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, etc.

What it comes down to is risk management.

And government at all levels, but more accurately the top elected officials, don't appear to take a risk management perspective in their approach to governance.

There is the book The Fifth Risk by Michael which discusses risk management and the federal government ("'The Fifth Risk' Paints A Portrait Of A Government Led By The Uninterested," NPR).

It's a great read, but I don't think it is so much about risk management as much as it is about the federal government's role in science policy and programming, and how research leads to better practice that saves lives.

Although a point it repeats by a former official at the Department of Energy, about program and portfolio management as "the fifth risk" and the unwillingness to take enough chances for fear of failure or bad publicity.

Ironically this is the same reason by the Department of the Treasury appears to not be willing to lend money to corporations in the face of the pandemic ("Fear of Risk Could Diminish the Economic Rescue by the Treasury and Fed," New York Times).

The UK's National Risk Register.  Interestingly, the Guardian article mentions that the UK government publishes an annual risk assessment document, the National Risk Register.

Imagine if that document was used not just to set funding priorities, but to build a national consensus about what to worry about and how to address it.

Instead, as with the pandemic, we are having partisan debates about whether it is something to worry about versus a hoax designed to make certain politicians look bad.

From the Guardian:
Tony Blair’s government decided a completely new approach to civil emergencies was required, and established a revised and expanded civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office, backed by new legislation.

The ambition was “to create something which was better suited to the way in which the UK is run”, said Bruce Mann, the director of the unit from 2004 to 2010. Civil contingency planning would cascade downwards through tiers of government, he said, all the way from Whitehall to networks of local emergency response groups. ...

the team also had a second responsibility: predicting entirely new risks and anticipating how the government might respond. Within its first year the unit drew up the national risk register, a comprehensive catalogue of all the civil emergencies that could conceivably strike the UK, which continues to be updated annually. At the top of the list – then and now – was an influenza pandemic.
Then again, governments that increasingly denigrate and ignore science make this difficult ("Trump's Response to Virus Reflects a Long Disregard for Science," New York Times).  This has been a Republican priority for some time, out of recognition that various ideologically-driven policies were unsupportable, such as how Newt Gingrich shutdown the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

And for awhile now, I've been mulling over a piece by Ezra Klein ("Why we can’t build: America’s inability to act is killing people," Vox) and his book Why We're Polarized about why "we" in this case the federal government, is increasingly unable to act or to accomplish anything--dealing with the coronavirus is merely one more example in a string of failures to act.

Flooding in Midland County Michigan after a dam breach.  A few days ago, in the face of heavy rains -- a so-called 500 year weather event, although the last comparable 500 year weather event in the area was experienced 34 years ago -- the Edenville Dam in Midland County, Michigan was breached in the face of heavy rains ("Thousands evacuate area in Michigan after two dams fail and governor warns one city could see 9 feet of water," CNN).

This lead to the overtopping of another dam, the Scoville, along the Tittabawassee River, and in turn flooding throughout the county, including in Downtown Midland, which had been the long time headquarters of chemical manufacturers Dow Chemical and Dow Corning.

More than 3,500 households have been displaced, and water levels are over 35 feet high in parts of the City of Midland.

Aerial photo of flooding in downtown Midland, Mich., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Photo: Kelly Jordan and Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press).

In the US, dams that generate electricity are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

For years, FERC had been issuing notices to the owners of the Edenville Dam about deficiencies ("Feds warned years ago Edenville Dam couldn’t handle a historic flood," MLive).

But the owner, Boyce Hydro LLC, based in Las Vegas, didn't act.

This led to FERC taking away the dam's license to generate electricity in 2018:
out of concern the spillway couldn’t pass enough water to avert a failure during a historic flood. ... 
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) records indicate capacity issues at the Edenville Dam spillway were cited as problematic dating back to the late 1990s.

In a 2018 filing, regulators characterized dam owner Boyce Hydro as chronically non-compliant with regulatory requests to upgrade the dam. FERC wanted Boyce Hydro owner Lee Mueller of Las Vegas, Nev. to build additional spillways to reduce the risk of failure. The dam had six spillways at two sites. ...

Boyce Hydro “has repeatedly failed to comply” with regulators who wanted Mueller to “develop and implement plans and schedules to address the fact that the project spillways are not adequate to pass the probable maximum flood, thereby creating a grave danger to the public,” FERC deputy secretary Nathaniel Davis wrote.
But that didn't lead to the dam getting fixed.

With the removal of the license to generate electricity, the dam was no longer under the authority of FERC.

Oversight was transferred to a State of Michigan agency, the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

But that didn't lead to the dam getting fixed.

And DEGLE issued deficiency notices too and was getting around to dealing with the problem.  Granted unlike FERC which had been asking for action for close to 20 years, DEGLE had only been dealing with the issue for about two years.

Receivership as a model.  Not unlike how I argue with nuisance properties that instead of issuing notices, cities should initiate receivership actions ("Receivership as a strategy for notorious nuisance properties," 2017), clearly the same should go with dams, especially when the potential for catastrophic failure is significant and can cause hundreds of millions of dollars or more in damage.

Although receivership can be costly especially if the corporate entity isn't responsive and doesn't pay to correct the deficiencies.

The ideal solution.  What would have been best was for FERC to seize the revenues generated by the hydroelectricity and used those revenues to pay for repairs and other necessary improvements.

Similarly, regulatory failure in Michigan contributed to the problems with the water system in Flint.

First, Congress gave states authority to regulate intra-state water systems over the EPA.  Second, in most cases, state agencies with this authority regulate with a light hand, at least under Republican Governors.

Inadequate monitoring of the failure of a different state authority led to the failure--all they needed to do was spend $300/month on water treatment chemicals, which they did not do.

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At 10:40 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

This Washington Post story has before and after images. The comment section also has good discussion from knowledgeable people with links to the area.

I guess after the electricity generating function was revoked, the owner was going to sell the dams to a newly created local authority, focused on maintaining the recreational and property enhancing elements of the lakes, and that abutting property owners agreed to the creation of a tax district to pay for it.

That was in the process of happening.

Some people claim that the breach happened because water was raised to appease property owners on Wixom Lake, and that plus the 25 year rain event was too much.

At 10:44 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

A follow up Post article is about how this problem is not a one off, that many other communities are similarly threatened.

At 10:46 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

A follow up Post article is about how this problem is not a one off, that many other communities are similarly threatened.

The disaster here in Michigan this week took some residents by surprise, but it didn’t come as such a shock to hydrologists and civil engineers, who have warned that climate change and increased runoff from development is putting more pressure on poorly maintained dams, many of them built — like those in Midland — to generate power early in the 20th century. What happened in Michigan, they say, could happen to many other aging dams across the country.

“Many of these dams are past their design life span,” said Frank Dituri, chairman of the Boardman River Implementation Team, one of the largest dam removal and restoration projects in the Great Lakes Basin. “And the conditions that they were designed under aren’t the conditions that exist now.”

At 6:56 AM, Anonymous h st ll said...

from looking at the YouTube collapse of it looks like an earthern levee, not a dam? or no?


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