Ever wonder why some lakes that drain to Lake Michigan experience huge water level changes, just like Lake Michigan, during years of drought or heavy rain or snow? Or why Elk and Skegemog lakes and their connecting waters are relatively stable — levels are dropped only about 6-7 inches for winter maintenance. For those stable water levels, we owe huge gratitude to the Elk Rapids’ Hydroelectric Dam owned by Antrim County and operated by Elk Rapids Hydroelectric LLC owned by the Stockhausen family. The dam’s Federal Energy Commission license is in effect through 2045. The following history and description was written for ESLA by Leslie Meyers, Antrim County’s Operator of Dams and Drain Commissioner.
The first dam at Elk Rapids was built by the first settlers and also powered the local sawmill. In the late 19th century, the dam was electrified to supply the growing iron foundry and related industries. The Elk Rapids Iron Company conveyed the dam to the Elk Electric Company in the mid-1920s and ownership was later conveyed to Consumers Power Co. The dam was decommissioned in the late 1950s and eventually Antrim County took ownership. During the late 1970s energy crisis, Antrim County recommissioned the facility as a hydroelectric dam, and the current generating equipment was installed. Concurrent with the recommissioning, Antrim County contracted with Traverse City Light and Power to manage the daily operation of electricity generation.

In 2007, Antrim County contracted with Elk Rapids Hydroelectric LLC (ERH), to operate the facility. ERH is a family-owned enterprise dedicated to the perpetuation of hydro power in Elk Rapids. In 2015, the dam received its FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) re-license which is in effect until 2045.
The present-day dam is on Dexter Street in Elk Rapids, between the upper (Elk Lake) and lower (Grand Traverse East Bay) boat harbors. It is an integral part of the historic downtown and the recreational waterfront, including the Edward R. Grace Harbor. The downstream side of the dam is a popular fishing destination that attracts anglers from near and far.

The brick building visible from the exterior houses the generating equipment. Built into its foundation are four separate chutes through which the water flows. Only two contain generating turbines. The water enters a chute through gates on the upper side and flows into a large rectangular chamber. A cylindrical turbine housing sits in the middle of the chamber with wicket gates at the top edge. Water flows through the wicket gates and falls downward into the housing, pushing the turbine blades as it falls. The turbine drives a shaft that extends through the upper floor and drives the electric generator. All the generating equipment is monitored 24 hours daily.

The summertime water level of Elk Lake was established by a Michigan circuit court order at 590.8 feet above sea level in 1973. On November 1st of each year, the order calls for the level to be dropped to 590.2. The lake level is raised to the summertime level on April 15th (or ice break-up, if it occurs earlier).