CARO — People like Kevin Hollosy and Ron Woloshen remember amazing summer days when Caro Lake was an active waterway – kayaks and canoes, families on pontoons, fishermen, even an occasional boat with water-skier in tow.
That’s when the Caro Dam was functioning properly – controlling water flow as designed, maintaining what had become known as Caro Lake along with water levels in the Cass River toward Cass City.
Those days are gone.
“We’d never be able to get this far in a regular boat,” Hollosy said last week driving a flat-bottom boat equipped with a special “mud motor.” “Before that curve, it was about a foot deep.”
“That curve” is just one part of the Cass River near the Michigan Sugar plant in Indianfields Township.
The low water is typical of the kind of problems facing the main waterway for the area in 2016.
“I think the water level is down, today, I would say six feet, ballpark,” said Woloshen, who not only grew up with the Caro Lake, but also is on the Indianfields Township Board of Trustees.
Locals and experts say the main problem is the Caro Dam, which has fallen into disrepair.
One of the control gates is broken – allowing water to gush out. Water is at least three feet below the Caro Dam spillover (the part where water is supposed to fall over and did until sometime in 2014). (Story continued below photo)
Photos taken with a drone by The Advertiser show the arm on the other gate still holding water back to be heavily rusted, too – and appearing to face an incredible amount of pressure from debris buildup.
Jim Pawloski, dam safety engineer, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, confirmed the debris outs pressure on the intact gate.
“If that other arm goes, we won’t be talking about the Cass River, we’ll be talking about the Cass Creek,” Hollosy said.
County records show Caro Dam is privately owned by Eric Fox. He did not respond to a request for interview from The Advertiser.
Because the Caro Dam is privately owned, Pawloski says it’s on the owner to pay for any fixes – even though the waterway itself is public. Fixing the Caro Dam could be in “the tens of thousands” at the very least, according to the MDEQ spokesman.
Records from the Tuscola County Treasurer’s office show that taxeson the Caro Dam property for 2015 haven’t been paid yet. Patricia Donovan-Gray, treasurer, Tuscola County, said Fox has not arranged for any payments and that it is set to go into foreclosure next March. Fox would have another year before the county foreclosed on the dam.
Earlier this year, the Tuscola County Economic Development Corp. tried to help Fox secure a grant through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Steve Erickson, executive director, Tuscola County EDC, said it wasn’t even close to happening, based on feedback from the DNR.
Erickson said there aren’t many funding opportunities since the Caro Dam is privately owned. Those talked to for this story say the situation is “sad” at best.
However, Pawloski said there may be an option that would force a fix.
History of the Caro Dam
The Caro Dam is the only barrier between Cass City and Frankenmuth (the Vassar Dam was recently removed).
According to a paper by Mark Putnam, former chairman of the Caro Historical Society, the “Caro Dam and the surrounding landscape is what one might call the ‘Heart of Tuscola’ or ‘Tuscola’s Energy Alley’ – it’s the place where in the past raw energy and power have been generated or received, refined, stored, and distributed. The Caro Dam location was traditionally as well called the ‘Dam at the Oxbow in the Cass River.’”
Putnam attributes the growth of the area – particularly to Caro and Michigan Sugar Co. – to the energy that was once captured and converted into power.
“Major benefits have come from controlling its power and energy,” Putnam wrote.
Records from The Advertiser archives show an early version of the Caro Dam being built in 1902 by Caro Electric Light Works. An overhaul in 1911 essentially amounted to a rebuilding of the dam, records show.
Putnam said the Caro Dam subsequently has gone through many ownership changes including by Consumer’s Power Co., Great Lakes Power Co. and Michigan Electric Power Co. in the 1920s.
In the 1930s, Detroit Edison was an owner of what was then known as the Caro Hydroplant. Ultimately, it came to be owned by Michigan Sugar, which sold it to Fox in 2001. The MDEQ says more than half of dams in Michigan are under private ownership.
Behind the Caro Dam, a 200-acre “impoundment” came to be called Caro Lake and served as a focal point in the area for outdoor recreational activity. Putnam said Caro Lake was “a very active scene.”
“On the river, many water-skiers were towed by motor boats, and their number was complemented often by the same number of competing fishing boats,” Putnam said.
The height of the “local Cass River experience” was traveling via boat to Caro Lake and the Caro Dam. Swimming was popular all along the river from the area near the current Chippewa Landing Park, Putnam said, and “it was a tremendous experience to wade and fish just below the Caro Dam.”
Close below the dam, the water churned, rumbled, and nearly thundered,” Putnam said. “The fish just above and below the Caro Dam always seemed to be the largest and the best.
“Visiting the Caro Dam was a wonderful experience that was relaxing and a bit tranquil and serene,” Putnam said.
One of the Caro Dam’s two control gates is stuck open because of a broken arm. Photos taken by The Advertiser show the arm essentially bent out of shape.
The problem was first identified as a “dam failure” in 2014.
That label has been identified as inaccurate by those who are familiar with Caro Dam – an actual failure would have sent a massive surge of water rushing toward Vassar and Frankenmuth and had an even bigger impact on levels upstream near Caro and toward Cass City.
Instead, water gushes out of the one broken gate, leaving water levels lower upstream toward Cass City. At one point between Chippewa Landing Park and the Caro Dam, water has been a foot or less deep within the last two weeks.
Gone is the once 200-acre Caro Lake, succumbing to vegetation that has been able to grow and thrive along the edges due to lower water levels. Docks that once lead to the edge of the water are surrounded by land and/or marsh. In place is essentially a channel leading to the Caro Dam.
“There is still water being held back by the dam,” Woloshen said. “Just not enough to keep the water level up.
“You look at Caro Lake Drive over on the far side and it looks down now on what is mostly a marshy area.”
From a technical standpoint, Jim Pawloski, MDEQ’s, told The Advertiser the Caro Dam isn’t considered a threat.
“The dam is not in new condition, obviously,” Pawloski said. “There was an inspection done last year and the engineer found the dam to be in…I guess the word is ‘satisfactory’ condition.
“It’s not good, but there weren’t any apparent deficiencies at that time that looked like they would lead to failure of the dam,” Pawloski said.
He added that the landscape downstream of the dam earns it a “low hazard” rating because a failure of the Caro Dam wouldn’t be a significant threat to life or infrastructure such as roads or utilities.
Pawloski said it’s important to note that lower water levels upstream could be a result of other factors, too, such as lower levels of precipitation or any other sources feeding into the Cass River.
Because the water at the Caro Dam isn’t being manipulated, Pawloski said, Fox isn’t necessarily responsible for the lower water levels.
He did point out, however, that there could be a way to force a fix.
“Courts in Michigan have held up that the owner of a dam does not necessarily have to control the water to any prescribed water level…unless there is a court order that tells him otherwise,” Pawloski said.
Pawloski said it’s called the Legal Lake Level Act and that it’s possible “to have a legal lake level established by law.”
According to a blog post from Eric Guerin, attorney with Kalamazoo-based law firm Varnum L.L.P., the requirement is Part 307 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.
“The statutory process is often initiated by a petition signed by two-thirds of the owners of land abutting the lake, typically organized by a lake association,” wrote Guerin. “Once the process is started, the County retains a professional engineer to perform a preliminary study to consider feasibility and alternative methods and designs for controlling the lake level. The lake level decision is made by a Circuit Court Judge, after public input and a hearing.”
Pawloski was quick to point out that, “in the case of the Caro Dam, there is not such an order.”
What else is happening at the dam?
In late June, there were two large, newer campers parked on Fox’s property near the building.
The building at the western edge of the dam shows heavy damage from above, essentially missing a roof and serving no purpose. Water once flowed through the bottom of the building but the water intake is jammed.
The fish ladder near the building allows for water to flow, but the top of the ladder is mostly clogged with debris, too.
The water level behind the main part of the dam is two to three feet below the top. The Advertiser has been to the dam several times in the last month and the water level can change rapidly based on precipitation.
A large concrete section of the dam at the bottom of the spillover has broken off. Due to color variations in the water, it appears sediment has built up in the Cass River immediately above and below the dam where there is less water flow.
The catwalk that used to stretch across the length of the dam and has been documented in photographs as recent as 1993 is gone.
A motor that rests atop the eastern part of the dam appears to have often been used as target practice for some sort of gun, riddled with bullet holes and dents.
“It’s sad,” said Christine Trisch, member, Tuscola County Board of Commissioners and whose district includes Indianfields Township. “I wish it could go back to producing electricity but the electric companies feel it is not economically viable for them to do.”
Erickson said the EDC thought it had a good chance of getting a grant that would help repair the dam, especially since the DNR had stocked fish upstream previously.
“We were surprised when…we scored really low,” Erickson said. “We were really discouraged over it.
“I don’t know that we would attempt to do it again unless we were ensured we had a decent chance,” he said.
Erickson said he didn’t know what any other options could be to help fix the dam and he isn’t alone.
“I remember when the dam was great from when I was a kid,” Trisch said. “The fact that it’s in the straits that it is now is sad.
“I don’t know what the fix would be.”
(The photo slideshow below shows additional images of the Caro Dam)
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org