Water still missing from lakes 3 years after floods

May 19 marks three years since heavy rains and flawed dams led to a devastating flood that ruined lives and damaged property.
Updated: May. 18, 2023 at 5:30 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MID-MICHIGAN (WNEM) - May 19 marks three years since heavy rains and flawed dams led to a devastating flood that ruined lives and damaged property in Gladwin, Midland, and Saginaw counties. To this day, the recovery is ongoing.

“I wake up every single day hoping that the water is going to be here,” said Gary Convery, Gladwin County resident.

That’s what life has been like for Convery for the last three years. He moved to the Gladwin County community of Hay Township to live along Smallwood Lake.

Convery was like so many others that could only sit and watch as water drained out after the Edenville Dam downstream failed on May 19, 2020.

“We live on a bluff. We didn’t have damage or anything. So, we feel blessed. There are other people that had a lot of hard times. They’ve lost everything. We lost water, is all we lost,” Convery said.

Smallwood and Secord Lake feed into Wixom Lake.

Stephanie Aldrich is the general manager at Stryker’s Lakeside Marina on Wixom Lake.

“Definitely challenging to be a marina that has no water in their lake,” Aldrich said.

Even though the water is gone, Aldrich said she is doing her best to stay afloat.

“We definitely don’t employ as many people as we have in the past,” Aldrich said. “We are definitely reaching out, branching out further looking for customers, more advertising further out. Just doing what we can.”

She said she is holding out hope the field will be a lake again soon.

“Water is life for us. That’s how we keep the doors open, stay in business,” Aldrich said.

The Four Lakes Task Force said it is on the right path to bringing back the lakes.

“We still have a few more years for the water to come back. But the good news is we’ve got Secord and Smallwood underway. And these dams are on the path of being permitted this year. So, we’re hoping everything gets constructed by the end of 2025,” said David Kepler, president of the Four Lakes Task Force.

He said he wants to see the water return too.

“There’s a lot of challenge to that, but we want to make sure we do it from a safety point of view, get the cost right as best we can for the community, and make sure we have these dams sustainable,” Kepler said.

While everyone waits for the water to return, progress in the flood recovery in Sanford, and other areas affected by those rising waters, continues.

“Our village park is huge, like the heart of downtown Sanford. And so that will be returning this year. And hopefully, the kids will be back playing at the fields next spring,” said Teresa Quintana, co-creator of Sanford Strong.

She said the recovery process is going well.

“We’ve got like a Biggby Coffee drive-thru coming. We may have a cat cafe that’s coming, which is a quirky little concept, but people seem to love it. We have Cultivate Coffee & Tea that just opened downtown. Red Oak reopened a year after the flood, they’re doing really well. Their building is beautiful. Huntington Bank had rebuilt and reopened,” Quintana said.

And it’s not just Sanford. Kepler said a lot of effort is going into bringing this area back.

“By the end of 2022, there was over $58 million of investment done here. We stabilized the dams. We put a system in place. We’ve done a lot of shoreline improvements as you can see. And so, we’re in a position now that we’re moving to restoration. And we want to step into that phase. We’ve got two out of the four dams going and we’ll get the other two moving this year. And we feel confident that we’ll finish that up as soon as we can,” Kepler said.

Meanwhile, property owners have lawsuits that are still flowing through the court system.

“The state of Michigan and the federal government are denying that they should be held accountable for what happened. And they’re utilizing the legal process to delay and deflect accountability,” said Michael Pitt, attorney.

Pitt is one of the lawyers involved with lawsuits seeking damages tied to the flood at both the state and federal levels. He said the state of Michigan is being sued for inverse condemnation, claiming the state’s actions led to the impairment of private property without just cause or compensation, violating Michigan’s Constitution.

The cases were filed in 2020. The state was denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuits. It appealed. The Michigan Court of Appeals heard arguments on April 12. And while there has been no decision yet, Pitt expects this to end up in the Michigan Supreme Court.

Lawsuits have been filed in federal court against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, alleging FERC was negligent in granting Boyce Hydro a license to operate the dams that failed. A judge dismissed the lawsuits in 2021. Pitt appealed. Oral arguments on that appeal will take place in Cincinnati on June 13.

There’s also a decision pending on lawsuits filed in the Eastern District of Michigan. And more lawsuits are expected to be filed in federal court no later than Aug. 24.

“We think eventually they’ll be a day of reckoning,” Pitt said.

Attorney Scott McFarland works at a different firm, but is also representing flood victims.

“It’s a big case. So hopefully it does carry some weight and a little bit of urgency with that given the broad spectrum of people and businesses and entities that have been affected. The other driver is we really hoped by now to be involved in some sort of settlement negotiations with the state. And their MO thus far has been to delay, deny, and defend claims,” McFarland said.

Three years later, and as of now, it is unclear when these lawsuits will be resolved.

“This is a long process. This is not something that’s obviously going to happen overnight. Probably, I tell them, probably another year. But again, it’s hard to say with the way that the courts can operate,” McFarland said.

While the fate of litigation is uncertain, there is growing confidence the water will be back three years from now.

For his part, Convery thinks the Four Lakes Task Force will make his home the place it was meant to be.

“I’m glad we got them here to get the projects going. We’re on the Zoom meetings with them. We see the progress they’re making. So they’re moving forward. So I’m happy to see that,” Convery said.

TV5 reached out to the state of Michigan and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for comment, but both declined.

Subscribe to the TV5 newsletter and receive the latest local news and weather straight to your email every day.