Restoring O’Neal Lake Dam & Surrounding Area


Lake O’Neal before and after the dam failure in September 2014

O’Neal Lake Dam was installed in 1952 by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to aid in water control and create a wildlife haven. The dam formed O’Neal Lake which was approximately 150 acres in size and became a much-loved paradise for the residents close to the lake and for nature lovers visiting the surrounding Wilderness State Park.

Located in the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the dam was made up of approximately 140 feet of earthen berms and a concrete spillway with a bridge over the spillway for snowmobile and pedestrian use. At various times throughout the history of the structure, erosion issues plagued the dam.


The southerly section of the dam after it was washed away

In September 2014, with two days of heavy rain, the dam failed when a large portion of the southerly section of the earthen-berm structure was washed away. The lake overtopped the sides of the dam, causing O’Neal Lake to shrink, and could no longer support adequate recreational uses. In November of that same year, NFE was retained by the Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) to investigate the failure of the dam and develop options to repair it.

After careful study and evaluation of the dam, NFE proposed five options for repairing the control structure. A Cut-Off Wall/Control Structure Installation option was chosen by DTMB/DNR as it created a new facility with a 50-year-life expectancy and would minimize maintenance. This option entailed placing steel pilings to form a wall in front of the existing dam and adding measures to control the lake level. Additionally, the existing bridge was rehabilitated to accommodate pedestrian crossing in this area of the park.

NFE prepared engineering plans for demolition, structure improvement, area earthwork and boat launch improvements, as well as construction documents. After DTMB/DNR secure funding for the project, construction started in October 2017. During construction, NFE provided both office and site construction administrative services until December 2017 when the dam was completed. As of April 2018, O’Neal Lake is taking longer to fill in due to the extend winter season, but once the warm weather starts, the lake should fill in nicely.

The northern section of Lake O’Neal sits on the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian’s reservation. Prior to the dam failure, the tribe found the lake to be a friendly ecosystem for wild rice. Once the dam failed, the tribe became an active vocal partner in brining back the lake, and even contributed funding towards the effort. With completion of the dam, the added measures to control the water levels are sensitive enough to accommodate the growth and harvesting of wild rice for the tribe.

NFE is proud to have been involved with this project that will bring the lake back to the area and its residents, as well as aid in the restoration of a wildlife sanctuary and wild rice harvesting. For more information, please contact Jeff Huhta at 248-332-7931 or jhuta@nfe-engr.com.


On the left is the rehabilitated bridge and on the right is the constructed wall in front of the existing dam