AuTrain dam surrender could have lasting impact on surrounding campground, nature preserve

In summer 2020 Renewable World Energies (RWE), which owns the Forest Lake Dam in AuTrain, sent in a request to surrender the dam.
Published: May. 3, 2023 at 5:34 PM EDT
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AUTRAIN, Mich. (WLUC) - The Forest Lake Dam sits at an important part of the AuTrain river. With a campground and wildlife refuge nearby, the area is important to fishers and tourists.

In summer 2020 Renewable World Energies (RWE), which owns the dam, sent in a request to surrender the dam. In February of this year, however, the company rescinded the request.

Given the dam’s location and impact on the nearby refuge and campsite, the DNR is concerned about what happens next.

“The State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources does not really have a large role in what is happening there, but we obviously have a big interest in all of the natural resources that the dam involves,” Michigan DNR U.P. Field Deputy Stacy Welling Haughey said. The Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) asked for clarification, citing three main concerns with the company’s surrender application withdrawal submitted on Feb. 27.

First, the committee says the company did not file a stand-alone notice of withdrawal.

Secondly, it also says there are discrepancies over how much time is needed to plan for the needed improvements. A plan that RWE submitted to FERC says that construction on the dam would begin June 1 of 2025.

Third, the FERC states that delaying the repairs is unacceptable and any modifications to the water level require changes to the license.

“We do have a concern about the progress of repairs that are not being done there and that is something that impacts the State Forest Campground,” Welling Haughey said.

The responses to the three questions were due from the company 30 days after they were received which would have been April 28. When we asked RWE about where the project stands now, Vice President Jason Kreuscher said in a statement that they have not officially rescinded the surrender application.

“While the letter you reference indicates a surrender withdrawal, RWE has not officially withdrawn our surrender application with FERC. We are currently working to find ways to remain generating power and work to meet FERC’s dam safety requirements,” Kreuscher said.

On April 27 RWE asked for an extension to June 1 for their response on FERC’s three questions however, in March of this year, Harris Energy Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. RWE is an affiliate of Harris Energy Group and is listed on the bankruptcy filing.

Kreuscher says its bankruptcy filing will have no effect on the operations or plans for the au train project.

“Harris Energy Group, and subsidiaries, has voluntarily filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is a corporate restructuring tool that will have no effect on the operations or plans for the AuTrain project,” Kreuscher said.

Meanwhile, because of uncertainty surrounding the project specifically the water level at the dam, the DNR has stopped fishery activities at the basin.

“In 2022 we decided to cease walleye stocking in the impoundment due to some uncertainties around water level management related to the hydroelectric facility,” Michigan DNR Lake Superior Basin Coordinator Patrick Hanchin said.

Hanchin says the DNR is also pausing a survey of the current fish population.

“It will be five years since it was last stocked with walleye,” Hanchin said. “We also decided to not do a spring survey to assess the walleye situation because of some of the uncertainties about the empowerment.”

Welling Haughey says the DNR is going to keep a close eye on how the project progresses on the federal level. We will continue to follow the future of the project as plans progress. To read all of the documents for yourself you can visit FERC’s website and enter docket number P-10856.