On May 17, central Michigan residents saw heavy rain in their weather forecast. Within 48 hours, the precipitation created historic levels of panic.

Just after midnight on May 19, Midland County emergency officials sent an alert warning of an “imminent dam failure.” Homes in Edenville along Sanford and Wixom lakes had to evacuate to emergency shelters at two area schools.

A timeline from MLive.com showed that by early evening Tuesday, the Edenville Dam collapsed, causing a rush of water into Sanford Lake. By Thursday, that surge created a hole in the Sanford Dam. Around 10,000 people were displaced and the flood is being labeled a 500-year event.

Virginia leaders should heed the lessons of Michigan’s catastrophic dam failures. We need to take a harder look at our aging dams and avoid a repeat of such tragedy.

That same week (May 18-21), WSLS-TV reported 9.06 inches of rain fell at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. And in southwest Roanoke, 13 homes were evacuated this past Thursday over fears that the Spring Valley Dam would fail. Residents were alerted through emergency calls and door knocks around 1:15 a.m., The Roanoke Times reported.

One local told The Times that compared to the flood of 1985, the rainfall was not nearly as severe, and the dam thankfully held up. While spared the worst, like Michigan, Virginia’s system needs to improve.

More than 2,900 dams are regulated by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). But the commonwealth employs only a handful of safety engineers to assess issues across five listed regions. Per the Detroit Free Press, Michigan only had two staff and a supervisor.

And many dams in Michigan, Virginia and across the U.S. are owned by private entities — including the Edenville Dam. Federal records cited issues with owner Boyce Hydro Power dating back to the 1990s.

In 2015, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ “Infrastructure Report Card” warned most of Virginia’s dams were built between 1950 and 1975. At the time, the ASCE estimated a $220 million bill to bring all of the structures up to minimum code.

But not every private — or public — dam owner has the resources to make costly upgrades. And with DCR’s small staff, we worry that key issues are under the radar.

On Sunday, the RTD reported a warmer and wetter summer weather outlook for Virginia. If Michigan’s case is any proof, we need a more proactive approach to dam safety in the months ahead.

Chris Gentilviso

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