Phelps Mill issue a clash of wildlife habitat advocates, and those who want to retain scenic dam—despite cost and aquatic impact

By Louis Hoglund

This rendering shows the plan that was defeated by the Otter Tail County Board last week, with a “fish bypass.” The excavation, right, would have created a detour for fish passage, while the dam remained fully intact. (Houston Engineering)
This computer-generated image portrays a DNR compromise plan to create a “Rock Rapids” for fish passage—while retaining part of the Phelps Mill dam structure for the aesthetic appearance of a functioning dam, with water flowing as it did when the Mill was operating. (Houston Engineering 2022)

Sentiments for cascading water over the old mill dam, conservation, and aquatic habitat, are colliding at Phelps Mill. 

The historic mill, among the few preserved sites of its kind in the state—and nation—has spawned an unusual array of opposing factions. 

But the bottom line, based on a unanimous Otter Tail County Board vote and opposition from the Friends of Phelps: Folks want to preserve a deteriorating dam structure and its nostalgic imagery—more than they want free river movement of fish and aquatic species. 

Two proposals to open up the river have, so far, been stalled. 

Last week, commissioners declined about $2.7 million in federal money for a “fish bypass,” which would have preserved the dam largely as it is. The plan would have excavated a “detour” to the west of the damsite, giving aquatic-dwelling species a path around the dam.  

Another proposal, which would have preserved part of the dam with a “rock-rapids” next to it for fish passage, also stalled out. The DNR would have funded most of that project. 

County commissioner Wayne Johnson generally favored the DNR compromise to open up the river—but still retain a dam structure near the mill itself. 

“The plan we agreed to originally was to place rock from the dam down stream to create a rock arch rapids, also allowing fish to work their way upstream, and use the rapids as a tourism (kayak-canoe) attraction, and still maintain the flow to “operate” the mill if we wanted to,” said Johnson. “And the DNR would have paid for all of that, and would have taken over the cost of dam repair—instead of the county being responsible for the cost of dam repair or eventual replacement.” 

As it stands at the moment, Otter Tail County is solely responsible for an aging dam structure that will soon be due for reconstruction, if it is to remain. 

The Phelps dam was rebuilt in 1993, at the cost of nearly $1.3 million. Today, that reconstruction is unknown, but DNR fisheries specialist Howard Fulhart pegged it at at least $3 million—but he wouldn’t be surprised if it crept to nearly $10 million—and that cost would be entirely borne by Otter Tail taxpayers. 

While picturesque, the Phelps dam has served no practical purpose since about 1939, when the mill closed. 

So scenic is Phelps that it may be in line for a national historic landmark designation. 

But its iconic stature sets up a clash between historic preservationists and natural resource conservationists. The dam hydro-powered the mill, back in the day, so to retain its historic integrity—the dam must remain intact, contend historians. 

Yet, conservationists may counter that—historically—aquatic species moved freely in the Otter Tail River watershed for eons. Until dams were constructed over the past century. 

Friends of Phelps Mill are also in conflict with Otter Tail County’s “One Watershed, One Plan” objectives. 

The plan clearly identified dam blockages as a detriment, directly and indirectly, to Otter Tail’s more than 1,000 lakes. 

Upriver from Phelps, there are four outlet dams that will be modified (Little Pine, Big Pine, Rush, and Otter Tail Lake), noted Fulhart. Those dam projects have been virtually unanimously supported.  

With those dams gone, it will connect 88 more river miles, said Fulhart. Fish Passage at Phelps Mill dam would add an additional 21 miles of river and lake habitat that all aquatic life could use. 

With passage at Phelps, it means a total of 109 reconnected river miles. The Outlet Dam projects on the Pines, Rush, and Otter Tail represent a $2.2 million project—with the East Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District spearheading the project. Similar projects opened up Lake Lizzie and Prairie Lake near Pelican Rapids. With the Pelican city dam removal, and the likelihood of Elizabeth dam modifications, the Pelican River will be restored from Detroit Lakes to Fergus Falls. 

All of these projects fall in line with the Otter Tail River One Watershed, One River Plan. 

The county’s Watershed Plan, and modern conservation movements to remove waterway obstructions like dams, are at odds with historic preservation advocates.  

Read More: County says no to Phelps fish passage