The history of dam modification projects in the Pelican River Watershed is illustrated with this map.
The Lizzie and Prairie dams near Pelican Rapids are now completed. There are some seeding and site cleanup remaining. Between the Fish, Lizzie, and Prairie Dam modification projects, 20 miles of the Pelican River have been reconnected for natural river flow and fish passage. The first was Dunton Locks, above Lake Sallie, which was completed in 2001.
Note the dams in red print, which are pending for modification. These three include the Pelican Rapids city dam, Bucks Mill, and the Elizabeth dam.

Lizzie, Prairie dam projects completed; by 2025, Pelican River could run free for 84 miles 

With the completion of the Prairie and Lizzie dam modifications, The Pelican River is almost free. 

Only three dams remain from Detroit Lakes to Fergus Falls–including the Pelican Rapids city dam, which sits above the “World’s Largest Pelican.”

The Pelican Rapids dam modification is pending, though the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors have clouded the timeline somewhat. 

To the south, the Elizabeth dam is in the unique position of being privately owned. Reportedly, the DNR has made some inroads with the landowner. 

It is probable that the Pelican River will be dam free by 2025. 

Combined, the Pelican River dam projects will cumulatively reconnect 84 river miles and 14,790 acres of lakes to a relatively natural state.  

Discussions of the Pelican city dam sparked local debate over the past two years. Many believe the dam has been visually and historically crucial to the Pelican Rapids city landscape. 

But the DNR, environmentalists and conservation agencies, here and across the nation, have been consistently advocating dam modifications—to return rivers to natural flows. Conservationists have long argued that the removal of obstructions improves habitat, spawning, and river ecosystems. 

Following is a summary of dam modification history along the Pelican River watershed, from Moriya Rufer, Houston Engineering. Houston has been a consultant throughout the discussions of the Pelican Rapids city dam.

Eight dams along Pelican River 

Historically, there were eight dams along the Pelican River. These dams are barriers that make dispersal for river species difficult both up and downstream, but these structures can be converted in such a way that they are more favorable to passage of fish, muskrats, otters, shorebirds, waterfowl, salamanders, frogs, crayfish and other invertebrate species. 

As part of the Red River of the North Fisheries Management Plan, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has listed goals of removing barriers to restore uninterrupted fish migration pathways.

First dam conversion was Dunton, 2001

The first dam to be converted to rapids was Dunton Locks, which was completed in 2001. This site became a showpiece for this type of project.

With the passage of the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008, more funding became available to do these types of projects.

Pelican chain’s Fish Lake Dam: 1932-2018

The Fish Lake Dam, at the outlet of the Pelican Group of Lakes, was built in 1932 for the purpose of maintaining consistent water levels in Pelican Lake. 

This dam has a long and storied history, including numerous partial washouts and patches, which caused drops in lake water levels of Pelican Lake and had left the dam in deteriorating shape. 

In 2016, the Pelican Group of Lakes Improvement District wrote and was awarded a grant from the DNR to replace this dam with rock arch rapids.

The partnership between the DNR and PGOLID for this project set a new precedence for how these projects can be accomplished. By partnering with a local government, the DNR was able to accomplish the project more quickly while also assuring support from the local area. 

Pelican LID instrumental in Lizzie, Prairie projects

Building on the success of the Fish Lake Dam, the DNR partnered with PGOLID again in 2019 to complete the Lizzie and Prairie Dams. 

Howard Fullhart, DNR Fisheries said, “This concept of partnership all comes from the success we have had with PGOLID.” 

PGOLID served as the local fiscal agent for these projects, but the funding came from grants. These projects brought $830,000 in state and federal dollars to the local area to complete the three dams (Fish, Lizzie, Prairie) and PGOLID used local contractors and service providers to complete the projects. 

The completion of the Fish, Lizzie, and Prairie dam modifications has reconnected 20 miles of stream for fish passage.