By Sterling McGinn

Inland lake dams, including the structure that regulates the water on Big Manistique Lake, was the main topic of the bi-monthly meeting of the Schoolcraft County Commissioners, which took place on Thursday, December 28 in the Schoolcraft County Courthouse.

Though it looked like Schoolcraft County would be taking over the responsibilities of Big Manistique Lake dam, Schoolcraft County is seeking to be removed as the delegated authority with Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), making Luce and Mackinac Counties responsible for inspections and liabilities.

The dam is owned by Luce County, and Big Manistique Lake is shared by Luce and Mackinac counties. The dam is often the subject to controversy as to the level of the lake. Some residents say the lake is so low that their boats can’t be removed from lifts. Other residents say the high levels are eroding the shoreline.

“We are actively seeking the resolutions as to who the delegated authority is,” said Stacy Hissong, lawyer from Fahey Schultz Burzych Rhodes currently representing Schoolcraft County. “Once we get those resolutions, we will let EGLE know [that] our goal entering that Schoolcraft County is removed as the delegated authority in EGLE’s records.”

EGLE will be actively reviewing dams in the State of Michigan following the May 2020 Edenville Dam failure, which resulted in environmental disaster.

EGLE recently reviewed the Carpenter Dam, which regulates Indian Lake in Schoolcraft County because the 1945 court order does not include a winter level.

“I am told from EGLE that they are going to go through every lake in the state to make sure the orders are being followed,” said Hissong. Schoolcraft was one of the first counties to be reviewed.

For many years, Schoolcraft County has been listed as the delegated authority for the Big Manistique Lake dam and has been billed for the inspection fees every three years. The inspection fee is approximately $5,000 per inspection.

“Back in the day, EGLE did the dam inspections,” Hissong said. “They didn’t care who was doing the inspections, and because the dam was in Schoolcraft County, they probably just put in their paperwork that Schoolcraft County was responsible, and they didn’t look into because it is such an unusual situation.”

Luce and Mackinac Counties can share the role of delegated authority and can jointly appoint a committee to manage removing and installing the boards for the levels.

“To be honest, I don’t think it was ever supposed to be Schoolcraft’s,” Hissong said. “I think it was an administrative error from decades ago and everybody just followed along with it.”

For many years, the Manistique Lake dam has been under the supervision of both Luce and Mackinac Counties, with one commissioner from both representing the Manistique Lakes Citizens Advisory Committee. Both counties appoint three individuals from each county to sit on the committee. This committee removes the wooden boards in the fall and replaces them in the spring to adjust the levels to a 1978 court order.

“Is it fair to say that Luce County, when they find out what it is going to cost for all this, are going to be a little upset?” asked Schoolcraft County chair Paul Walker.” “Because they are going to have to do some investment like we are and spend money to set up special assessment districts—they are not going to be happy. They have to get on board because this is going to come back and bite them.”

Walker said that each of the inspection report shows seepage, which has never been corrected.

“If something goes sideways on that lake and there is ice damage or erosion, and someone manipulates those boards, and you have aquatic vegetation and fish that die, they [EGLE] will come in and hammer them,” Walker said.

Schoolcraft County is in currently waiting for a permit to draw down the winter lake level of Indian Lake. While waiting to receive the permit, which may not be approved, the status of three other dams in Schoolcraft County are being reviewed. Their county board is working to ensure that the dams are in working order.

This year, Schoolcraft County spent approximately $184,000 to have the gates on the Carpenter Dam pulled, painted, repaired, and replaced. Schoolcraft has two other dams within their county, including dams at Gulliver Lake and McDonald Lake.

The current Big Manistique Lake structure was built more than a mile down the Manistique River and a court order was issued by the Luce County Circuit Court that year at 686.0 above sea level. Because land was furnished from a private party, the dam is located in Schoolcraft County.

“We have a normal level, 686.0, but no winter level in the order,” said Hissong. “If a lake level order does not include a winter level, then it would be a violation of the order to draw the lake level down,” she said.

And, if a winter draw down permit was not acquired from EGLE, removing boards without a set winter level and/or permit would be a EGLE violation.

In order to be compliant with EGLE’s regulation, the Big Manistique Lake order will need to be revised to specify summer and winter lake levels and the timeframes to manage those levels. A variation level would also be included to the order. If a flood or drought affected the levels, this order covers the variation of the lake during that time.

Hissong believes the Luce County Circuit Court order will need to be revised to include the summer and winter levels and the variation level.

“The circuit court will do that, but before we go to the court, we will need to make sure EGLE is okay with it, and that it is exempt from future draw downs,” she said. “Then we will go to circuit court and the order will be issued, and we shouldn’t have to go back to court for decades.”