A LITTLE DAM KNOWLEDGE

The History of the Ada Dam:
Why You Own it, and What it Means to You

You may not be the first one on your block to own a dam, but owning one makes you a member of a very select group. Yes, the Ada Dam belongs to you and about 230 of your neighbors who own riverfront property between the Ada Dam and the Cascade Dam. The Cascade Dam is owned by the township. This is a short history of your dam and of the association that made you an owner.

Chances are, especially if you're new to the area, you may not even know that we bought the dam for a dollar! You may not know that we lease it to professional operators; that it creates net income for the association, or that we have a treasury that allows funds for maintenance of the dam, keeping the river navigable by removing fallen trees that block the main channels, activities, social events, and fishing contests; we are open to new ideas that would benefit the members. It will answer questions about what uses are appropriate for these funds, the responsibilities and liabilities we face as owners, and why giving the money back to ourselves or providing our own electricity sounds great but is not so easy.

A Recreation area is Born!

Prior to the dam's construction in 1926, the Thornapple River was free flowing and navigable by canoe and shallow draft boats, depending on the time of year. If you want to know what the river looked like along its entire length, surprise, it looked just like it does now in the area between the Island with the house, and the Cascade dam. That section flows just like it did hundreds of years ago. Right, that is the only area between Cascade and Ada that flows naturally as it always has. It was not a creek; the dams do not change the volume of the flow. In some areas, there was more depth; the flow depended on the drop from one section to the next.

But this was not the first dam on the river. It is the nature of a man to want to dam a waterway. A dam was built at this location as early as 1855. But at that time, a run was dug that diverted water to a water wheel for grinding. Farmers brought crops to the mill. The Thornapple River drops 20 feet in the course of its run through the township. There were rapids and areas of calm, swift flowing drops and shallows that allowed fording. At flood stage, it filled the same areas that it does now, plus more. It is not unusual for the river to rise 4 feet in depth with heavy rains or snow melt. With the dams in place, those areas that previously filled only at flood stage, but were other times of the year marshy or dry mudflats or gravel, are permanently filled for a distance upstream from the dam. Between flood and times of drought, the water flowed mostly in narrower channels. Boaters must make themselves aware of the locations of these channels, that still exist, since the depths vary from 4 feet to 14 feet even in the middle of the "pond" area near the dam to as little as 1 to 2 feet outside the channel further upriver. Stumps left over from the 1926 flooding for the backwater can be as little as 3 to 4 feet under the surface. Danger to props and people is possible. Owners and boaters must familiarize themselves with hazards! Boaters should also study the depth measurements on the chart that was produced several years ago that is on another page of this site.  In rivers, depths change constantly, but this will give you an overview that you can use as you make your own study. At Oliver Woods (west of Island No. 1) it flowed along the extreme west edge of what is now the river. Along the east shore here is what boaters and skiers know today as the deeper channel. In the wide section south of the camel hump bridge, the channel is along the south bank. Beyond the camelhump, it runs along the north bank and then switches to the opposite side as it curves along the tall bank on the Ada Drive side. In other words, you really need to use a depth sounder to find out for yourself where the channels are before engaging in water sports.

When the Power Company proposed damming the stream in the mid 1920's, they first had to purchase flood rights from the owners. Frank VanDeven owned one of the largest parcels, which included most of what is today Cascade Springs Drive, and this land stretched north almost to the present site of what is now the Camelback Bridge. The Power Company, in order to salvage the timber growing in the area, erected a sawmill, but found it easier to fell the trees at waist height rather than ground level. Dangerous stumps were left to plague us for years, and these were once marked with buoys. Most have since been removed by your Association during annual drawdowns, but several unmarked stumps remain, especially in the elbow of the "7" shape of the pond area nearest the dam. Diving is dangerous and may result in death or injury due to unknown depths, and underwater obstacles.

Back to history. VanDeven secured enough fallen trees to erect a log cabin for his daughter, Frances, and her husband, Oliver Wallace--a home that still stands on a bluff overlooking the river to the West, on the hill above the big double boathouse where, recently, one could purchase treats from young mermaids. It was later occupied by another daughter, Dorothy, and her husband, Les Craig, who died in '98; after which it was sold to Rob and Mary Buchanan. Its location is identified under that name on the map.

Buy the Dam ... or Else

The dam was built in 1926 by the Water Power Company and was owned by the Lower Peninsular Power Company. They sold it in 1934 to Consumers Power, who had been purchasing the dam's entire output since 1927. During the late 1950's, many of the generating facilities like ours were becoming less economical to operate. There were growing rumors that Consumers was considering disposing of several such dams, including our sister dam in Cascade.

Given this possibility, it was not difficult to imagine the impact on surrounding property values, threatened at best by an unmonitored and ever-changing water level, or worse yet, the dismantling of the entire dam. It was this threat that prompted founding of the Thornapple Association, Inc., chartered as a Non-Profit Corporation in September 1961.

Actually Consumers continued to operate the dam until December 30, 1968, after which the turbines and generators were removed. They offered to sell the dam to the association for one dollar, and the sale was closed on April 1, 1969. (Rumor has it that Dan Wallace, who was incidentally VanDeven's grandson, funded the purchase from his pocket change and has henceforth refused reimbursement so he can secretly tell his grandchildren: "It's really my dam.")

Is There A Dam Doctor in the House?

Having taken ownership of the dam, the board was now faced with the daunting challenge of running it, and the closest thing to an operating manual was a "Good luck!" from Consumers Power. (What do you expect for a buck?) Bud Somerville, who was president of the Association at the time, called a number of emergency board meetings. Story has it that he dangled the power house keys before the assembled board and said, "Someone please unlock the door and do something before that damn dam malfunctions."

Enter Ed Jackoboice, newly elected board member, whose family owned a prominent hydraulics firm. Admitting his knowledge of hydraulics, but professing not the slightest knowledge of dams, he accepted the challenge on three conditions: (1) that he is given the power of a dictator, (2) a blank check, and (3) no phone calls.

Without any automatic controls, the wicket gates that regulate the water level were literally controlled with a screwdriver, but during periods of heavy rain, it was necessary to open the floodgates by means of a hydraulic winch. Ed employed the part-time help of a County Drain Commission employee, named John DeBoer, who would visit the dam three times a day; and between the two of them they manually regulated the water level during the early 70's.

After a couple of malfunctions that caused flooding over several lawns and Thornapple River Drive, Ed Jackoboice purchased from Minneapolis Honeywell a $50,000 computerized controlling device that would electronically regulate our water level within plus or minus half an inch. Where did the money come from? He had the Drain Commission create a special tax assessment district that annually taxed all of the beneficial property owners. The amount of the county's assessment was determined annually, based on Ed's personal estimate of the funds he'd require for the coming year and periodic inspections by the drain commission.

New Life for an Old Dam?

As the cost of energy escalated in the 70's, the federal government began to encourage the refitting of many of the old dam sites that had been abandoned or sold in the 60's. In fact they invited owners of facilities like ours to apply for a feasibility study grant, which we did. We engaged the services of an Ann Arbor engineering firm, whose study confirmed the economic feasibility of re-electrifying the dam, even despite the projected equipment cost of well over a million dollars.

This raised the challenge of finding an appropriate firm, or firms, to finance, engineer, and finally to operate the newly refitted dam. Perhaps no one was more instrumental in meeting this challenge than former resident and long-time board member John Donnelly, whose financial savvy and tireless efforts were indispensable during this critical period.

After contacting no fewer than 20 candidates, we finally negotiated with STS Hydropower, a Northbrook, Illinois firm, whose primary activity is the development and operation of hydroelectric facilities such as ours. They would not only engineer and fund the refitting of the dam, but also would lease the facility from us and manage its entire operation over the 10-year span of the agreement. The initial lease agreement took effect on November 1, 1983, and, following amendments in 1988 and 1989, expired March 31, 1994. Your board has since renegotiated a new lease with STS for an additional term ending March 31, 2018. In their operation of our dam, it is their responsibility to maintain our correct water level. And thereon hangs another tale.

The River Level: Historic or Legal?

Our headwater elevation (as it's called) was mandated at 635.8 feet above sea level by a Circuit Court order dated November 7, 1968. But Ed Jackoboice had apparently been controlling it according to a marker that was only 635.5 feet, or nearly four inches lower--a difference critical to many boaters who would have difficulty getting under the Camelback Bridge at the higher level. (It is widely alleged that Ed knew it all along.) In 1990 correspondence with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, we confirmed our desire to continue operating at the historic, rather than the "legal" level, i.e. 635.5 feet. Even that level made crossing under the Camelback bridge a challenge for pontooners, so when the Camelback bridge was rebuilt several years ago, negotiations resulted in raising the clearance by 18 inches. Why not higher, you ask, with this once in a lifetime opportunity presented to us? Rumor has it that the negotiators were intent on limiting the size of boats on the river and that was one sure way to accomplish that. Others say that the road commission was unwilling to raise the grade of the road to allow for additional height. Whichever, it is set for the next 50 years or so. Before you buy your next boat, doublecheck the clearance, and remember, the water level is higher in the spring, so leave some clearance!

And speaking of buying boats, today's boats come with wonderful capabilities that require good judgement and consideration for your fellow boaters! Boats are fast, with high power stereos, and big wave making capabilities. All of these require the adult in the house to set limits on the younger folks for the consideration of your neighbors on the river. We are all neighbors who share this wonderful river! (and we know where you live.) You can use those very words in your talk to your children. The good news? Waverunners, otherwise called personal water craft, or PWC's,  are getting quieter! In fact, the now more common four cycle engine PWC's are downright quiet and enjoyed by adults as well as the younger set. So, speed is the greater safety concern these days; but PWC's produce less wake at 15 to 20 MPH or more than at what would be called slow "no wake" speeds, so use your best judgement to be considerate of your fellow boaters and fishermen, as you cruise the river.

Where Does the Money Come From?

Under the terms of our present agreement, STS leases our facility for an annual payment. This payment is subject to increase based on existing power rates, but the first lease stipulated it could not be reduced below $76,000.

The dam is nominally projected to generate 5.5 million kilowatt hours per year, and Consumers Power has contracted to purchase its entire output from STS. Although our association's income is fixed by agreement, our operator's income and profits can vary substantially, based on such factors as weather and downtime for repairs and maintenance.

Where Does the Money Go?

Our funds are conservatively invested by the treasurer and a financial audit committee. Since our primary corporate mission is "to preserve the beauty of the Thornapple River and maintain it as a pleasant area for living and recreation", we have over the years spent money to remove hazardous tree stumps in the river, remove fallen or falling trees that might obstruct navigation, stock the river with fish periodically, conduct boating safety programs, and to subsidize social events aimed at promoting fellowship among the association. We encourage and are always alert to any suggestions from our members. Our guiding philosophy is, if an activity will be open to all members, will promote fellowship, and the person who has the idea is willing to lead it, present the idea to the board for consideration for funding! Many activities have been undertaken over the years, from fishing contests to picnics, canoe races to boat parades, the annual dinner to.......we await your input! E-mail us or call.

Why Not Free Power or Just Pay the Money to Ourselves?

This appealing idea has occurred to more than a few over the years, but there are various concerns to which we must be equally alert. In the first place paying the money to ourselves might require a change in our non-profit corporate status, with tax implications for all.  As for buying our own power at discounted rates, think of cost of transmission lines; not so practical; anyway, our power purchase contract with Consumers won't expire until 2017. So don't hold your breath. Now, you'd think that at the time of renewal, we would see a major increase in our revenues, what with Michigan passing a law that requires electric utiltities to buy a certain percentage of "green" energy as part of their portfolio. Current rules require consumers energy to buy from us. But guess what? That might change! So, we must watch our pennies!

How About Charity?

This idea has received attention from several boards. Apart from concerns of justice or philosophy, there are some practical considerations that demand we maintain a significant level of reserves.

Although STS is responsible for the powerhouse and the generating equipment and (under the improved terms of our new lease) the structural components of the dam, the embankments, and the retainer gates, we are not totally without risk. We are liable for repairs of any prior, unknown defects plus "repairs of an extraordinary nature". "Extraordinary" equals expensive. Although these expenses have been modest to date, there is always a lurking potential of larger obligations in a structure that is already in its eighth decade of service.

But there is yet another liability that comes with the purchase agreement we have signed with Consumers Power. In essence it stipulates a "performance liability" in the highly unlikely event we ever cease to generate power during the 35-year term of the agreement. The liability rises steeply till the year 2000, when it begins to decline to zero in the year 2017. At the end of 1993, it had reached a staggering figure of more than a million dollars. Although our lease with STS indemnifies us against the liability, it would devolve upon our association in the event of a STS default.

Plus, there are future opportunities, depending on the demand for green energy as time goes on, that may require large investments. We currently operate a generator in only one of the two turbine chutes in our dam. Thats right! We are letting about half the water just flow right through that could be generating power!  When Consumers Power decommisioned the dam, they removed both sets of turbines and generators. When we recommissioned it, STS studied the flow and determined that only one turbine and generator was cost effective, not two. Why? Long time river dwellers will recall that both the Cascade Dam and the Ada dam, from 1926 to 1968, were coordinated together and flow was halted for the night each evening at 8PM! They reopened the turbines at 8AM. So, the area of the river from the Cascade Dam to the island number five, roughly just past Shagbark, was calm, not flowing. The rest of the river remained about the same as before. In that section of the river affected, water remained in the channels and all but the most shallow areas near shore retained a shallow depth of water. Fish were intelligent enough to move from shallow areas to deeper areas. Kids loved being able to wade in the river on summer evenings. In the winter, those who lived in that section marveled at the break up of ice each morning as the water began to flow. It was sight to behold! Our backwater stayed at normal depth; the Cascade backwater rose slightly, like a tide. Holding the water back overnight had a very important function. Electric rates are MUCH higher for electricity generated during daytime business hours! That is when it primarily gets used. Holding back the water overnight was a more efficeint use of the power and more profitable. Operating both turbines from 8 AM to 8 PM maximized both efficiency and water usage.

Under current rules in place since the time of recommissioning, we are not allowed to stop the normal flow of water except under special circumstances. Theory is that it stresses the fish, I think. Not sure if ours were asked, but there must be a study somewhere measuring fish stress.  What is the "normal" flow? Whatever mother nature sends down the river, which varies from day to day with the rain and snow. How does that differ from our varying the flow mechanically? Doesn't the normal variation stress the fish? Well, they are used to that. They are used to day to day variation, but stressed by variation by mechanical means that is the same every day? Let's just say it is a mystery that we do not understand. That is why we have government, to understand such mysteries and guide us in the proper ways.

So, electricity must be generated 24 hours a day, meaning that half the time, we must generate power at the much lower nighttime rates, and the water cannot be held back for maximum efficiency and highest rates. STS determined that under those circumtances, a second generator was not cost effective for them to install.  They figured it would only generate full power 70% of the time. Would that be enough for us to consider it, since we are not bound by the need for an immediate profit, but can look at the long term? That seems possible, but we would also want to be sure that we have a long term contract in place for the sale of the power.  However, we are advised that, even though we are producing the "greenest" energy that exists, which would ordinarily be lauded, and a lot of potential "green" energy production is lost by water flowing through a turbine chute with no generator, there are "some" that might seek to take away even our current generating capability if we "open" up our permit for reconsideration. You see, the rules are set up so you cannot just ask to expand your permit without a review of the whole thing. Why? Oh, just use your imagination. So, we continue to operate at current efficiency, 24 hours a day, with one turbine.

Given those realities, TRA has carefully invested our reserve funds over the years, and has purchased two parcels of land with river frontage. One is a 2 acre part of the old St. John's camp near the end of Bridgewater where we have held several picnics. Another is the vacant lot next to the Downs association boat ramp, where Buttrick avenue connects to Thornapple. You are part owner of those parcels!

Thanks for the Memories

We hope this brief story might answer whatever questions you may have had about the only dam you're likely to own in a lifetime. It was based on research of old records and on discussions with several former trustees, our legal counsel, Consumers Power, and the STS staff, whose help is gratefully acknowledged with our apologies for not recognizing them all by name, with one exception. That exception is Ed Jackoboice, who provided a wealth of information, and without whose operation of the dam from 1969 to 1984, we'd have all been in deep water. Or in dry dock?

Originally provided by Jim Alexander
Thornapple Association, Inc.
April, 1999, edited.