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Environment & Climate Change

Tittabawassee River restored to pre-flood course near Edenville

An aerial view of floodwaters flowing from the Tittabawassee River into the lower part of downtown Midland, Mich., on May 20. Thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate after two dams collapsed, causing flooding.
An aerial view of floodwaters flowing from the Tittabawassee River into the lower part of downtown Midland, Mich., on May 20. Thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate after two dams collapsed, causing flooding.

More than a year after catastrophic flooding changed the course of the Tittabawassee River, it’s back to its normal path past the mid-Michigan community of Edenville.

Workers have been pushing earth into place for months. Late last week, they blocked off the river’s new path and brought it back to its planned route through the spillway of the Edenville Dam.

Dave Rothman, vice president of the Four Lakes Task Force, which oversees dam reconstruction along the river, said that’s an important achievement.

“That’s a mark of progress that you can share with people, and people understand,” he said. “When you tell them about how many cubic yards or tons of rock you’ve moved during the day, it’s less clear to people what that progress looks like.”

The Tittabawassee River ripped through the dam last year after heavy rains and had been cutting a new course since then. Three other dams on the river were damaged in the flooding, and the water in the four lakes they had been holding back surged downstream, flooding neighborhoods and businesses.

The river’s new route was eroding farmland and washing away parkland. Even worse, the new flow was eating away at the riverbed just downstream from the Edenville Dam, and the erosion was creeping back up toward the dam’s remaining foundation.

If it reached the dam itself, “that would really complicate rebuilding,” said Rothman.

With the river back on its regular course, work can move ahead on rebuilding the dam itself, Rothman said. It’s one of four that need to be repaired or rebuilt -- likely at a cost of more than $300 million -- to bring back the network of lakes that emptied during last year’s flooding.

A state task force convened in the aftermath of the flooding found that many of Michigan’s more than 2,000 dams need “immediate attention.”

The dam failures and the task force report spurred Michigan lawmakers to introduce legislation that would put more than $500 million toward building, inspecting and maintaining the state’s dams. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality, where it has remained since May.

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