Report: Loss of Soil Strength Likely Led to Michigan Dam Collapses

September 15, 2021

A sudden loss of soil strength under saturated conditions most likely caused two Michigan dams to collapse last year and contributed to flooding that forced evacuations of about 10,000 people, an interim report commissioned by federal regulators and released Sept. 13 said.

A five-member independent forensic team engaged by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) said there is “strong evidence” the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams during steady rain in May 2020 came from static liquefaction, which it called the “most plausible principal mechanism for the failure.”

The team has “essentially completed” investigation into the physical mechanism of the failure, but “evaluation of human factors is still in progress,” the 42-page interim report said.

A final report is pending.

The Edenville collapse may have been triggered by increased groundwater pressure within loose embankment sands combined with shear stress while the dam was holding back historic water volume on May 19, 2020, following several days of heavy rain.

The dam failed at 5:35 pm that day, releasing the Wixom Lake impoundment on the Tittabawassee and Tobacco rivers and unleashing waters that overtopped the downstream Sanford Dam. The 500-year-sized flood caused more than $200 million in estimated damages and forced the temporary evacuation of about 10,000 people in two counties.

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