Restoration is both career and passion for DNR river scientist Luther Aadland; though it is often an upstream struggle with local public opinion


As a toddler, “playing in the creek,” Luther Aadland developed an interest in riverways.

So fascinated by flowing waters, Aadland made a career out of it– as a river scientist involved in some 200 river restoration projects here and abroad.

“My rewards are seeing river systems return to their natural state…and native species coming back,” said Aadland at the Jan. 30 town hall meeting on the Pelican Rapids city dam. “That’s the motivation for me.”

In this land of 10,000 lakes –and in Otter Tail County, with about 10 percent of those lakes–it is hard to imagine that Minnesota “would be a fish-less state without river connections,” said Aadland. River systems, spawned by receding glaciers thousands of years ago, enabled fish to move freely and populate Minnesota’s watersheds. Those free-flowing rivers were harnessed by man over the past century-and-a-half, as dams were constructed for hydro power and flood control.

Prior to settlement, “fish used the rivers as highways,” said Aadland.

All the tributaries were connected in the Red River basin –which includes the Pelican and Otter tail river sys- tems. By the late 1800s, most of the state’s river systems were blocked by dams.

Today, slowly, those rivers are being re-connected. In most cases, there has been local opposition to dam removal, acknowledged Aadland. Such is the case in Pelican Rapids, where the dam has been an iconic landmark for well over a century. Many longtime residents have expressed sentimental views that the removal of the dam would fundamentally change the downtown landscape. Issues have also been raised about up and downstream impacts if the dam were gone (see related article in this edition of the Press.)

But in most communities where dams have been removed, from Appleton to Cass Lake to Barnesville, Aadland said public opinion became more favorable when the damsites became improved fishing waters and other recreational activities increased, such as kayaking.

“My entire career has been restoring rivers, which are complicated systems,” said Aadland to a crowd of nearly 100. “Rivers are like a human body, with different elements all interacting.”

Biodiversity is a key motivation behind the river reclamation movement, which has been gaining momentum nationally and at the state level.

DNR river scientist
Luther Aadland,
speaking at the town
hall information meet-
ing on the Pelican
Rapids city dam, Jan.
30 at the Lake Region
Electric Cooperative
meeting room.

The Otter Tail watershed is “the most diverse river system in the Red River basin,” said Aadland, with 75 native fish recorded–though many species are isolated by dam blockages. Upstream from the Elizabeth and Pelican dam, 11 species found elsewhere in the Pelican River are absent, or “extirpated.” Above the Pelican city dam, 35 species that are found elsewhere in the otter Tail watershed are absent.

The Elizabeth dam, believed to be one of the only privately-owned dams in the state, is now under new ownership and the landowner is receptive to removing the dam and restoring the river, said Aadland.

Numerous reclamation projects were outlined by Aadland at the Pelican presentation.

• The Minnesota Falls Dam on the Minnesota River, which is 18 feet tall, extirpated 39 species. Within one year after the dam was removed in 2013, 12 species returned to the restored rapids environment.
• On the Red River, 35 barriers have been removed and species like lake sturgeon, one of the most endangered species, have returned and are thriving.
• In Breckenridge, the 1936 dam failed in the 1997 flood; was repaired in 2001. After more failures in 2006 and 2007, “the county decided this was enough,” said Aadland. The dam was removed at a cost of $100,000, and up to 20 aquatic species that had been absent for decades returned to the ecosystem –including sturgeon, sauger, gar and native lamprey. Interestingly, the record 2009 flood caused no damage to the rapids that were created after the dam removal.