A more detailed glimpse of the Pelican River, under the scenario that the dam is removed, was explored at the November 27 Pelican Rapids City Council meeting. 

New computer generated illustrations, including aerial views of how the dam, bridge and river might look, were unveiled by Amanda Hillman, DNR river reclamation specialist. 

Excavation and dredging, in order to retain much–but not all–of the existing Mill Pond, were figured into the illustrations.  Additional excavations have been targeted to preserve backwater wildlife habitat, explained Hillman.  The overhead views also depict the four “natural, historic rapids” that existed prior to settlement. These rapids, upstream between the city and Prairie Lake, would be enhanced by the dam removal. 

Proposed dredgings in the Mill Pond area would create pools to retain water, and also maintain flow under the city’s familiar “suspension bridge” feature. However, the pond would inevitably narrow, which has been a concern for some residents and city officials.  The exposed dry land could be landscaped and planted with natural vegetation, including native grasses and wildflowers.  

The “Largest Pelican in the World,” statue would remain, though it may require some re-positioning, said Hillman. 

The November meeting was a sneak preview for the city, ahead of a large town meeting planned in January–where the public will be encouraged to attend and review the information and visual material.  

Repair costs  of the Pelican city dam have been estimated at upwards of $1 million, a cost which would be largely incurred by the city.  The DNR has encouraged and promoted dam alterations, in an effort to restore rivers to a more natural flow, with the goal of improving fish and wildlife habitat–as well as increasing natural spawning locations for walleye and other species. Under a dam removal, the DNR would assume nearly all the costs, as well as most reclamation expenses. 

Dam removals and modifications have been occurring regionally and nationally, including nearly the entire Red River Valley. 

The Fish Lake dam, on the Pelican  chain, has been modified for fish passage.  Also, reported Hillman, both Prairie Lake and Lizzie property owner groups have approached the DNR about dam modifications upstream.  Downstream, the DNR has begun discussions with the landowner at the Elizabeth dam. If all these dams were modified, it would create free flow and fish passage from the Pelican River all the way to the Otter Tail River, added Hillman. 

While the conservation aims of the DNR and federal agencies have advocated dam removal-modification in Minnesota and nationally, the image of Pelican without its distinctive dam has concerned many longtime residents.  The damsite has become a familiar, sentimental icon for many who have expressed concerns. 

Also at issue locally, shorelines will shift and change as the new meandering of the river evolves.

A big question: As some river shoreline becomes exposed, who owns the dry land–the ajoining property owner, or does it remain “public” space based on the previous high water mark? 

Based on the numerous dam reclamation projects around the state, the county legal department’s have handled the landowner issue, said Hillman, on a parcel by parcel basis.  

Another concern is the appearance, and even “odor” emanating from the exposed shoreline.  During the drawdown of the river in 2017, a strong, unappealing odor was created.  Hillman noted that the exposed shorelines revert fairly quickly into riverside vegetation, and would be supplemented by landscaping and tree, shrub and native plantings.  Also, the odor will disapate in time, she noted.

 Among the other topics and issues at the meeting: 

• Councilman Steve Foster asked about the impact of newly-created shoreline on city park mowing and maintenance. The DNR’s Hillman said that a natural buffer between manicured grass and the river’s edge should be maintained, to prevent erosion and filter runoff and sediment. 

• Councilman Steve Strand questioned whether a fish ladder at the damsite would accomplish fish movement, if the dam remained. 

• Rick Johnson suggested that the shift in the riverbed could open possibilities of a “riverwalk” trail at some locations through and near the parks. 

• Dredging and excavation to hold water, create pools and to maintain habitat will occur not only in the present Mill Pond area, but in at least five upstream locations between the Pelican city parks and Prairie Lake.  

• A walking bridge across the river, at the damsite, providing north-pedestrian access across the water, is expected to be included under a dam removal or modification scenario.

• Resident Maureen Berg noted that there is a backwater pond, in the woods behind a residential area, that has provided plentiful wildlife habitat. She has observed otters, fox, wood ducks and, at one point, she counted 64 snapping turtles in the pond. During the drawdown of the river the pond nearly dried up.  Berg questioned whether alterations to the dam would also change backwater wetlands.    

• While the DNR’s dam-related reclamation funds are somewhat limited in scope, other grant sources may be available for riverside and park  enhancements, noted Hillman. 

• The city has about a half million in state bonding money available for the dam project, but there is a deadline and a plan of action should be determined by June.  The city may be able to get an extension on the bonding money, however, noted Don Solga, city administrator.  

“At some point, we have to decide whether the dam is going to be fixed–or if we’re going to do something else,” said Solga. 

The town meeting on the dam will be scheduled in January, though a date has not been firmed up.