Restoring the Four Lakes: Where are we now?

If you’re in Sanford, you’ve probably heard quite a bit of banging lately. It’s been more than two years after the devastating 2020 floods, and work toward restoring the four lakes is well underway.
Four Lakes Task Force (FLTF) is a nonprofit organization and the authority delegated by Midland and Gladwin Counties to oversee the maintenance and operations of the Sanford, Wixom, Smallwood, and Secord Lakes. The flood repairs involve three parallel tracks: dam stabilization, debris removal, and shoreline erosion.

Redirecting the river back through its original channels – through spillways at the dam – is another aspect of dam stabilization.
In December 2022, the special assessment district will first appear on tax rolls. That money is being assessed to pay for operation, maintenance, and administration surrounding the dams and lake bottoms from 2023 to 2025.  Properties with front and/or backlots along the lakes will be assessed.

Prior to the flood, dams were maintained at the expense of Boyce Hydro, LLC which used hydroelectric generators to cover costs. The flood destroyed the hydroelectric equipment, however, and licenses have expired. FLTF has determined that making hydroelectric power is not economical when compared to wind turbines, for instance.
 David Rothman is the vice president of Four Lakes Task Force, the delegated authority to oversee the maintenance and operations of the Sanford, Wixom, Smallwood, and Secord Lakes.
“We’re going to stick with these as recreational lakes, and that’s the intended purpose of them from this point on,” says David Rothman, vice president of FLTF.

Also included in the special assessment district is a $250 million rough estimate for the capital improvement project to rebuild the dams. Although final costs will not be determined until about 2024 when Smallwood and Secord will mostly be rebuilt, and bids for Sanford and Edenville will be placed.

“We can only guess right now what the final cost will be,” says Rothman. “... We have people working with us who have a lot of experience rebuilding old dams. They know what it costs, they know what it takes, and they can help us with cost estimates and putting in contingencies so we’re covered for those extra expenses.”
 More than two years after the flood, restoration work is still underway at Sanford Lake.
Rothman emphasized that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has provided immense support up until this point through their Emergency Watershed Protection program. After the president declared the floods as a national disaster in July 2020, the program applied to the situation at the four lakes. Up to 75% of the cost for work being done at Sanford Dam has been covered by NRCS so far, totalling over $23 million with more to be spent. 
On Oct. 20 from 7:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m., FLTF is hosting the “Path to Four Lakes Restoration: An Engineering and Technical Symposium” at the Midland Center for the Arts. Presentations and panel discussions will cover the following topics: hydrology and hydraulics, dam safety and construction, environmental impacts, and the path forward for FLTF. The event is free to attend, but registration is required. 

Sanford Lake

When you drive down West Saginaw Road over the Tittabawassee River, you’ll see a bustle of construction trucks at Sanford Dam. If you stop and listen, you’ll hear the vibratory pounding of a crane’s hammer on steel sheet piling.
Steel sheet piling is drilled deep underground by a large crane. The sheet piling interlocks together to form an impermeable layer to protect against seepage in the instance of a future flood.
This is a dam stabilization project. To create an impermeable core, steel sheet piling is being driven into the hardpan clay layer of the earth embankment at Sanford – at its deepest, that’s about 35 feet underground. Each piece is corrugated lengthwise and connected to each other with interlocking edges, which are then treated with sealant. The goal is to greatly reduce the amount of water that can seep through the dam to the downstream side to prevent a failure like at Edenville Dam.

“We’re trying to get the Sanford Dam into the safest condition we can put it into and return the river into its original channel before we let it sit for a while,” said Rothman. “We’re not yet ready to start the reconstruction process – that’s probably a year or more away.”

Edenville Dam will also undergo this dam stabilization process. Edenville will take longer to construct because of additional work needed for the embankment and six gates for spillway control. Redirecting the river back through its original channels – through spillways at the dam – is another aspect of dam stabilization. That process is completed at Sanford dam.
This black film is called a geomembrane. Its purpose is to create an impermeable layer to stabilize the earth.
Other than dam stabilization, debris removal is still underway at Sanford Lake. Debris consists mainly of trees, but boats, trailers, and hazardous materials such as gas cans and pesticide containers are still scattered along the lake bottom.

“What we’re trying to do is take debris out of the lake that would either be a hazard to navigation or it would be refloated when we refill the lakes and wind up jamming against the Sanford and Edenville Dams,” says Rothman. “We want to minimize that because we’ve already done one debris removal project from behind the Sanford Dam, and it’s a slow and expensive job. We don’t want it to happen again.”

Sanford Lake is planned to be refilled in spring of 2025.

Wixom Lake

Wixom Lake is slotted for refilling in spring of 2026.

Flood debris removal on the lake bottom is underway at Wixom, similar to what is being done at Sanford. Between the two lakes, there are about 1600 acres to be cleared. Trees are the largest issue. 

Shoreline erosion projects are ongoing along the embankment as well. Over a dozen projects have been completed so far, securing anywhere from 1-15 houses per project. Currently, FLTF is working on stabilizing a house near the boat launch on the Tobacco River side of the lake.

Smallwood Lake & Secord Lake
While the 2020 floods damaged the dams in these two lakes, they were deemed serviceable with repairs. Construction on both these dams is planned to begin this winter. The target date for refilling these lakes is spring 2024.
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Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.