Town meeting on dam repair, modifications planned in Pelican Rapids January 30

Options for repairing or modifying the Pelican Rapids city dam were outlined at the Nov. 28 city council meeting.

Presenting information was Howard Fulhart, from the DNR fisheries offices in Fergus Falls.

The council session was informational for the city council, with little public input on Nov. 28. But a formal public information and town meeting process will be held to get input from a as many people as possible–including a large hearing tentatively set for Jan. 30. City administrator Don Solga suggested that the hearing be moved to the Lake Region Electric meeting room, as a large crowd is anticipated.

The city is facing $1 million or more in repair and maintenance costs for the aging dam. In addition to concrete repair, the stone retaining wall on the north side of the dam collapsed in 2016.

Many who were born and raised in Pelican Rapids have a sentimental attachment to the dam, and are concerned that modifications will have an impact on the park setting.

The 14-foot dam dates to 1870, initially built from wood timbers.

On the other side, the DNR –as well as fishing organizations and river advocates –are encouraging dam modifications or removals in order to return waterways to a more natural state. Dams alter aquatic habitat and prevent movement of species up and downstream, said Fulhart.

On average, 40 percent of native fish species are absent upstream from dam barriers, according to Fulhart. In the case of the Pelican River, native species that have disappeared up river include channel catfish, various shiners and darters, redhorse and the iconic lake sturgeon. Less obvious, but extremely important to the ecosystem, are native mussels –which are environmentally crucial, according to fishery biologists.

With its strategy of returning river systems to a more natural state, the DNR is offering incentives to encourage dam modifications and removals –with the aim of establishing fish passage. In Pelican, the DNR would likely cover most of the costs of creating a natural rapids environment to replace or modify the concrete dam structure.

According to Fulhart, the tiered “rock arch rapids” would control flow much like a dam –but would allow fish passage.

Of concern for Pelican residents is the visual appearance of the site, which is the home to the “World’s Largest Pelican” and a major feature of the city’s park system.

Another concern is the Mill Pond reservoir, upstream from the dam.

Dam modifications would not necessarily change the setting. The expanse of the pond might be altered, but could be minimized depending on the “design” of the rapids. Changes in the river and pond could open the doors for landscaping, a river walk recreational path, and additional fishing opportunities.

From a recreational standpoint, a rapids environment could create kayak opportunities –which is one of the fastest growing outdoor sports, noted Fulhart. The rapids would also improve recreational fishing, as well as fish spawning habitat.

Another concern expressed at the council meeting was the flow beneath the suspension bridge – –another important feature of the city’s park system.

Councilman CJ Holl said it will be helpful to have visual images and computer enhanced photos in order for the public to view the various options.

“Whatever the city decides to do, we (the DNR) would like to be a part of it,” said Fulhart. “We would like to participate.”

If the city chose to repair the existing dam, the DNR would like to create a bypass allowing movement of aquatic species.

From a taxpayer standpoint, there is a financial motivation for the city to collaborate with the DNR on dam removal or modification. If the city chooses to repair the existing dam, the cost –potentially upward of $1 million–would be paid locally.

“The DNR does not have funding for dam repair or rebuilding,” said Fulhart. For dam removal or mod- ification, there are substantial DNR funds available and could be released as soon as 2019.

Councilman Steve Foster asked if it was the DNR’s intent to remove all dams.

Fulhart said that removing or modifying dams is a long-term process; and that the DNR promotes fish passage and more natural river environments when the opportunity arises. In cases such as Pelican Rapids, the opportunity to explore options was prompted by the failure of the retaining wall, and the extensive repairs needed on the existing dam.

City Councilman Steve Strand, a native of the community, reflected some of the skepticism of longtime residents. “I grew up here,” said Strand, hinting that extensive dam modifications may be difficult for some to accept.

That’s why the city is hoping to start the conversation in January, so all options are reviewed and considered. Details on the January 30 meeting are pending.

Otter Tail County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who attended the November 28 city council meeting, said that he would like to see the Pelican Rapids City and Phelps Mill dam plans move on a similar schedule, since many of the issues are similar in both cases.