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After Midland flood, Wixom, Sanford lake residents face long, complicated restoration

Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Outdoors

Charles Hudler used to look out his window at Wixom Lake, resplendent with fisherman, boaters and families of ducks or swans moving slowly across its tranquil, blue-green waters.

He now looks out on a vast field of mud where his waterfront utopia used to be. The lake is gone. The Tittabawassee River has re-emerged. Erosion is ongoing.

And this could be Hudler's view for a long time.

The collapse of two dams and catastrophic flooding May 19 and 20 all but drained Wixom and downriver Sanford lakes. It has prompted a slew of lawsuits already that will likely take years to resolve. Restoring the dams and the lakes -- if it's even allowed by regulators -- will be expensive. And modern requirements for the nearly century-old structures will probably result in lasting changes to the neighborhoods nearby.

Residents are now left in a sort of limbo -- stay and rebuild or start over somewhere else if they can -- with the only sure thing being that nothing will return to exactly as it was before.

Wixom Lake was formed by the Edenville Dam, which failed May 19 amid heavy rains, draining the lake. Downriver, the Sanford Dam also failed, and similarly drained Sanford Lake. The flooding downstream created a disaster area in Midland County and forced the evacuation of 10,000 people.

 

The tangled mass of litigation that's already underway could take years to resolve. Dam restorations -- if they happen at all -- will require modernized infrastructure that may forever change what life was like for generations around the previous dams, which were built in the 1920s. And just who will pay for the expensive fixes, and how, also will be complicated.

"So much of it is up in the air," Hudler said. "We're getting a lot of mixed messages. We've heard there's a possibility the state could decide that the dams should not be rebuilt -- that's happened before in other places after dam failures.

"We're not getting a lot of clear communication to know what to expect."

The unanswered -- and at this point, unanswerable -- questions are "weighing heavily on all of our minds," said Larry Woodard, president of the Wixom Lake Association.

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