Norton Discusses Dam Failures, Flooding on WEMU’s “Issues of the Environment”

Richard Norton, a professor of urban and regional planning, spoke about recent dam failures and catastrophic flooding in mid-Michigan. The segment was part of “Issues of the Environment,” a program airing on NPR’s affiliate station, WEMU.

In May, up to seven inches of rain fell over a couple of days in Midland, Saginaw, and surrounding counties, leading to the failure of the Edenville Dam. The nearby Sanford Dam was compromised. As a result, the area experienced what has been called a once-in-500-years flood event that eradicated homes, devastated property, and forced more than 10,000 people to evacuate.

“You never know when something like that is going to happen, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t surprised,” Norton said.

The state has about 2,500 dams, and their average age is 70 years — which exceeds their average life expectancy by about 30 years. This aging and often poorly maintained infrastructure is at risk as climate change has brought more frequent incidents of heavy rains and flooding.

Norton said he supports calls to remove obsolete dams to help avoid future catastrophes like the one that played out in the Midland area last month: “It would be beneficial from an ecological perspective … and [dams] create a false sense of security for folks living downstream.”

He also talked about the potential pitfalls of relocating people in order to reduce sprawl and thus also reduce carbon footprints, and said it’s important to consider where such relocation would occur: “In one sense, building in more dense, urban places allows you to minimize the amount of impervious surfaces, which helps [mitigate flooding]. The problem is, if you relocate people to a flood-hazard zone, you may be making it worse.”

Listen to the entire interview here.