Water: scary stuff

It doesn’t look like much at the beginning, but this dam failure in Michigan led to thousands of people being evacuated, destruction of bridges and homes downstream, and some houses were flooded to a depth of 9 feet. All it took was a little rain. OK, a lot of rain.

Here’s an analysis of the failure. There was something more going on.

This video is going to be a classic in the teaching of geotechnical failures, but it also clarifies the events that led to the Edenville Dam failure. It would have been simple to ascribe this to a simple overtopping event that occurred when the capacity of the spillway was exceeded. But in reality the events are are more worrying than that – the dam appears to have undergone a slope failure; a failure of its integrity. This should never occur, and to me it suggests that the problems at the Edenville Dam went further than known issues with the spillway.

So not just rain, but also negligence by whoever had responsibility for the dam. It turns out that this dam was privately owned, by absentee landlords with a criminal history who neglected it, refused to do necessary repairs and expansion, and had their federal license to run the dam revoked for their greedy refusal to do what was needed. I guess it is unsurprising that Lee Mueller is a Randian Trumpkin who lives in Las Vegas.

America’s crumbling infrastructure isn’t helped by the parasites and rentiers who’ve taken it over.


  1. oddie says

    Sounds like this guy is gonna spend the rest of his life fighting liability claims against him. I had no ideas dams could have private owners. That seems kind of insane to me.

  2. davidc1 says

    A bit off topic ,but Cadillac Desert is a great book about how good old Amurican know how brought water to
    the South West .

  3. rbhport says

    So tell me – why is it they don’t plant something more substantial than grass? Why not trees? Wouldn’t trees give the dam more solidity?

  4. kestrel says

    Have to agree with #2, Marcus Ranum: real dams are very complicated structures… or at least, they should be. I was a bystander in the building of a dam overseen by the Office of the State Engineer which in my state is the body responsible for dam safety, and I have to wonder – where are the toe drains? Where are the weirs? Are there piezometers in place? Who was doing the checking and maintenance of this structure? And of course, where is the rip rap… as Marcus pointed out. Mostly what strikes me is, this structure, whatever you want to call it, is not even close to the width it should be. I learned that dams ought to be public structures because they can fail and therefore affect the public. In my state, there have been instances where the OSE breached a dam because it was not deemed safe and for whatever reason/s could not be repaired in a timely fashion. I suppose there are some that would complain about government interfering with people etc. but this is a terrific example of why we need such oversight.

  5. says

    @#1: oddie:

    Since he’s already in his 70s, he doesn’t have that much longer to live anyway, and was already sentenced to a year in prison which he did not serve, so clearly the local justices don’t think rich criminals should be punished.

    In general:

    This is an illustration of what I think of as the “insufficient good” principle: the dam failed principally because the owner and the people in his company were sociopaths, but there’s probably nothing which could have been done about that by the time they got control of the dam. What could have prevented the situation would have been for regulators to have dug in their heels and done their jobs — according to the links provided, the feds found the company to be negligent all the way back in the 1990s, but permitted the company to string them along over and over and over again; the company promised to take measures which would possibly have prevented the failure over and over again in the early 2000s and were constantly granted more time after failing to act repeatedly. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that they finally lost their license (that is, specifically 2018), and the regulators were so relaxed about the process that the replacement task force wasn’t going to get control until 2022. Four years of unlicensed operation! Regulators are supposed to exist to prevent exactly this sort of thing — this failure was made possible by the passiveness of the people whose job it was to not let it happen; not only should the owners go to prison, but the regulators who let this go on so long should be fired and never permitted to hold positions of responsibility again, and possibly share in the liability.

    The parallel with the Republican and Democratic parties should be obvious.

  6. kestrel says

    @#4, rbhport: no, that is not allowed. Those roots can potentially damage the dam, leading to failure. Any such growth needs to be removed. It’s OK to have grass etc. on the back side (or downstream side) of the dam, but the face should be riprap as noted, and absolutely no trees. Rodents also can be problematic and generally the OSE here recommends trapping, as the holes they dig can once again cause leaking that can lead to failure.

  7. weylguy says

    Slope stability analysis is an important subject in soil mechanics, especially in the design of earth embankment dams. Fortunately, the Michigan dam was small with a relatively low water level, unlike the South Fork Dam that catastrophically failed, resulting in the Johnstown Flood.

    Doesn’t Michigan’s governor (Gretchen Whitmer) have enough problems dealing with President Trump?

  8. says

    A lot of these sort of “dams” happen when someone piles up sandbags to block a flood then someone comes by with a backhoe and adds dirt to the back. As you can see there is no strength top to bottom and not much front to back.

    More serious dirt dams they put a line of boulders from a strip mine, then big rocks on top of that so they lock together with gravity, then brick-sized rocks to lock all that together and sometimes concrete or clay and then more gravel and dirt. A dirt dam like that near me was overtopped when beavers blocked its emergency spillway and the water cut it down to the riprap, which held.

    Big serious dams are a whole other thing. For those you have millions of pounds of ferroconcrete locking against bedrock. Even then the water is under crazy pressure and tries to infiltrate all around it, and if it succeeds it can slice the dam like cheese. The Mosul Dam has had a crew of Italian mining engineers for years pumping grout into leaks to try to keep the whole thing from collapsing and sending a wall of water through a city of 250,000 people. ISIS was smart enough to leave the Italians alone and so were the Americans. Which, I guess will tell you how dumb trumpist republican libertarians are.

  9. komarov says

    I’m confused by the private ownership as well. What’s the business model here? Is it the tiniest hydroelectric plant ever conceived of? Does it act as a water reservoir? Can you sell off water from those? The only other thing I can think of, beside tourist trap/commercial parkland, is blackmail: It’s my dam now, pay me or I won’t maintain it. Little do you know that I won’t do it anyway.*

    At any rate, the lesson that you can’t leave critical infrastructure – even profitable one – in the hands of “the market” should have sunk in long ago. Examples abound wherever there are two or more humans “doing business”, more or less.

    Regarding liability, there are so many ways to get out of this:
    1) Bankruptcy
    2) Bailout (Businesses are too big to fail, remember?)
    3) Eternal court cases designed to grind down the private lawsuits by those affected, and maybe keep officials at bay for years or decades
    4) Pawn off responsibilities to some insurance company, resulting in (3)^2

    After all, someone has to turn a profit and I can’t imagine large margins in the “neglected public infrastructure” market to begin with.

    *A business model pioneered by every mining company/power plant ever that has accidentally spilled a few million liters of toxic waste water straight into the river they were inexplicably stored right next to.

  10. JoeBuddha says

    A Randian Trumpkin Gazillionaire? Talk about your proverbial three strikes.

  11. JoeBuddha says

    This is why I’m IT. Civil Engineering is just too hard and too easy to get wrong. Heck, I don’t even write real code anymore. I just criticize what I’m presented with and hope that the devs can do better. Not that I COULDN’T, but I’m happy not being on the hook. Reality is hard. Make believe is easier. I’ll stick with make believe.

  12. jenorafeuer says

    And, it could always get worse. As I read in another article about this:
    There’s a Dow Chemicals plant with long-term safety issues of its own in the flooded area.

    To bring it all back together, Dow’s Midland operation is located on the currently submerged banks of the Tittabawassee River. The river and its banks are (or at least used to be) the site of frequent recreational fishing, but Dow also used them for decades to discard liquid and solid waste products such as the “bratwurst-sized electrodes” that were found during nearby construction work in 2008. The company, for its part, said Wednesday that it had shut down operations at the plant and that although floodwaters are commingling “with an on-site pond used for storm water and brine system/groundwater remediation,” there have been “no reported product releases.” This is not the most reassuring language given that remediation is the process of removing contaminants—and that some of the same floodwaters at issue, as documented by pictures that have been forwarded to me, are currently commingling to a depth of several feet with the contents of many residents’ basements.

  13. kingoftown says

    The federal regulator had been warning the owners about the capacity of this dam for over 20 years and revoked their license 2 years ago. Surely the owners should face charges of criminal negligence?

    “Boyce Hydro argued that the FERC should not revoke its license because it would make the sale less attractive”
    Here’s a thought, if you want to sell an asset don’t run it in to the fucking ground!

  14. says

    Re: my previous. If all the regulators did was to send a more or less harshly-worded letter, then they are not “regulators” they are “oversight”

  15. jrkrideau says

    19 chigau (違う)
    Even a beaver dam can break if the beavers skimp on maintenance.

  16. Derek Vandivere says

    You practically need a trigger warning on that video for us Dutch folks.

  17. Dunc says

    There is a really excellent article on what is probably the biggest water management challenge (and looming, almost inevitable disaster) in the USA from the New Yorker back in 1987 here: Atchafalaya. Very long, but well worth it. When the Atchafalaya finally captures the Mississippi, it’s going to redraw the map in a big way.

  18. says

    From what I heard, there was a long running argument between the dam’s owner and all the people using the recreational artificial lake the dam created about who was going to pay for maintenance. Seems like one of those situations where everybody wants somebody else to do something, and ultimately nobody does. Very tragedy of the commons type of thing, and exactly why oversight and regulation is vital.

  19. flexilis says

    Since this happened in Michigan, it must be the fault of “that woman”, you know, the governor. /s