Repair, modify or remove options discussed

This computer generated graphic illustrates a simulated appearance of the “Pelican Pete” river view if the Pelican Rapids dam were removed and replaced with a “rock arch rapids” design.

Comparable to modifications at Dunton Locks, Detroit Lakes; Barnesville; dozens of sites on the Red River; and similarly proposed at Phelps Mill, the re-introduction of rapids creates fast water interspersed with pools. The design allows up and downstream movement of fish and aquatic species.

Boulders and flat rocks are placed to create fishing opportunities. Paddlers also traverse the rapids for recreation.
DNR river scientist Luther Aadland, with a graphic on the screen about reconnecting rivers.
Nearly 100 attended the town hall informational meeting on the Pelican Rapids city dam. Posing a question here, Everett Ballard.

The good news on the Pelican Rapids city dam: Though deteriorated, it is structurally sound for the near term.

Bad news: Repair and engineering costs could run from about $700,000 to $1.2 million.

“It is not an emergency situation,” said Pelican Rapids Mayor Brent Frazier, as he welcomed a room full of nearly 100 for a town hall meeting on the future of the iconic Pelican dam.

Further, he asked that the public “approach the topic with an open mind.”

From there, the Jan. 31 session was mostly a Department of Natural Resources show.

The DNR’s powerpoint presentation may have opened a few minds; but the question-answer session indicated that there is lingering skepticism by some who are concerned about modifying or removing the dam structure.

Repair? Or remove?

In simple terms, those are the questions facing the community.

As a city-owned dam, repair costs would fall on local taxpayers. Bonded over 20 years, the repairs would be financed at $92 a year for a $150,000 home; About $240 annually for a commercial business valued at $200,000, said Don Solga, city administrator.

As advocates of river restoration to more natural characteristics, the DNR is willing to step in with funding –to modify or remove dams.

The funding is, essentially, a “carrot” dangled in front of cities and other jurisdictions.

Nationally, there are more than 90,000 dams . Most have deteriorated and have outlived their usefulnesss; and estimates suggest it would cost $45 billion to repair them all. Consequently, state and federal agencies are advocating removal, whenever and wherever possible.

Tempting though the funding carrot may be, concerns were raised at the Jan. 31 meeting, held at the Lake Region Electric Cooperative.

Many of those questions and concerns were met with ready responses from Luther Aadland, a nationally known river scientist, headquartered at the Fergus Falls DNR office. He has been involved in more than 200 river restoration projects.

Following is a representative sampling of topics discussed at the meeting:

• There were several questions pertaining to water levels at the Mill Pond; the flow under Pelican’s landmark suspension bridge; and river shoreline impacts. By placing boulders, enhancing the rapids, and creating pools and channels; most of the existing river can be retained, said Aadland. But much will depend on survey and design work that would begin, if dam removal was decided, said Aadland. The actual “size” of Mill Pond would hinge on the river reclamation design.

• Because the Pelican dam is under city jurisdiction, “citizens would have a lot of input into the project,” noted Rick St. Germaine, Houston Engineering, who has been working with the city council for more than a year.

The Jan. 31 town hall meeting was informational, presenting the DNR’s perspective on dams and dam modification. But discussions will continue at the council level, and there will be more informational meetings before action is taken on the dam, said Mayor Brent Frazier.

“We want to work on this as a community…as a team, going forward,” said Frazier.

• Upstream impacts are a concern, especially for the number of Prairie Lake residents who were in the audience. Sherry Femling noted that “Prairie Lake is already shallow.”

Based on the draw down of the pond last summer, during the inspection of the dam, Prairie Lake levels dropped.

Prairie owner Steve Zimmerman asked the DNR to “put it in writing” that dam removal wouldn’t affect Prairie levels, “so I can sue the DNR when Prairie drops and my property value goes down.” Aadland said dam removal would not alone affect the water supply in Prairie.

• The deteriorating Prairie Lake dam, which has a hole the size of a beach ball in it, also came up in the discussion. A Prairie resident suggested that both dam projects should perhaps be completed at the same time, as a dovetailed river restoration.

Aadland said the Prairie Lake dam could very easily be converted to a rock-arch-rapids design, which is proposed for Phelps Mill.

• The DNR would continue to monitor the river restoration into the future; and would be in a position to make adjustments if there are unintended upstream consequences.

“When we restore a river to a natural system, it does change over time,” said Aadland, “there is no question that a river will do what rivers do.” There have been situations where adjustments were made, “but for the most part, if it is designed properly,” river reclamation projects are successful.

• By 0pening up the river system to free flow of fish and aquatic species, would it create a “carp factory?” asked Jim Johnson of Prairie Lake.

Actually, carp populations would likely be reduced, said Aadland, because they prefer shallow, slow moving water–crowding out more desirable, native fish species. Newborn carp are a food source for native predator fish–which would further control carp population, with free passage of native fish, said Aadland.

• Removing dam blockages return movement of fish and aquatic species, said Aadland. Sturgeon, one of the most endangered species globally, were native to the Pelican and Otter Tail systems. A fish that will migrate up to nearly 700 miles to spawn, the sturgeon is being reintroduced to the Red River basin–aided by the removal of five dams alone in the Fargo Moorhead area, said Aadland.

40 percent of native fish species are lost where dam barriers exist, said Aadland. In locations such as Breckenridge and Dunton Locks near Detroit Lakes, native species returned within a couple years of the dam removals.

“We single sturgeon out, but river restoration has a broad ecological benefit,” said Aadland. “Walleye spawn in the same habitat as sturgeon.”

• Native mussels are a lowly, but important aquatic player in river ecosystems. Carried up and downstream by fish, native mussels are nearly extinct from dam-blocked waters. Mussels remove pollutants –including pharmaceutical chemicals, said Aadland. “They play a huge role in water quality by filtering,” he said, adding that a healthy mussel population are able to naturally filter 80 times the material of a wastewater treatment plant in the Twin Cities.

• Native catfish, sauger, paddlefish, chubs, gar and various darter species are just a few impacted by dam blockages. After the removal of the Breckenridge dam, in 2007, eight native species returned. At the Buffalo River State Park dam removal in 2002, 14 native species returned–including catfish, sauger and even green sunfish.

• Recreational fishing has improved at virtually all other river restoration sites, said Aadland. “And typically, it is the more desireable fish species,” such as walleye, said Aadland.

• Undesireable, non-native zebra mussels have been found to be a prime food source for sturgeon, which have been successfully re-introduced in the Otter Tail River and Lake area. Sturgeon have been filmed, consuming zebra mussels “like a vacuum cleaner,” said Aadland.

• A side-benefit to restoring rivers is the acceleration of natural reproduction of walleye, said Aadland. Improved habitat and increased spawning waters could indirectly reduce costs of fish-stocking.

• Originally built to power mills, the Pelican dam is not a flood control structure, said Aadland. Further, the Otter Tail and Pelican River systems are not flood prone.

During the major 1997 floods across the Red River Valley, the water levels here were little more than a “blip,” said Aadland.