Conservation Minnesota

Removing Dams and Freeing Rivers

At the end of last week, I made a trip to western Minnesota to hear about the proposed removal of a dam that was built in 1905.  The Minnesota Falls Dam, on the river of the same name, is three miles south of Granite Falls and originally was built to provide hydroelectricity to the city.  It became the first hydro dam under the jurisdiction of Northern States Power Company, now called Xcel.

The regional conservation nonprofit, CURE (Clean Up the River Environment), held a dialogue and forum for area residents to talk about the dam  and the r

easons behind the proposed removal.  Xcel hasn’t used the dam for hydro over the past decade as the dam needed serious repair, and it was going to cost three or four times more to repair than to remove it.

People gathered on a downstream sandbar below the dam and listened as a DNR fisheries biologist and the executive director of CURE, along with Xcel representatives, explained that this was a private business decision, no taxpayer dollars would be used in the removal, no other public or private entity was interested in taking over the dam, freeing the river would lead to better fish spawning, water quality and fishing, along with  opening up the natural river rapids to allow canoers and kayakers to recreate.  It was a good discussion and local residents seemed somewhat satisfied that questions on the dam removal were answered.

A recent study by the Corps of Engineers found that by 2020, 85 percent of dams in the U.S.will be at the end of their functional lifespan, which can range between 60 and 120 years.  Of about 1,100 existing dams in Minnesota, over 300 are at least 60 years old.

Since 1999, with the removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec river in Maine, more than 430 other dam removals have taken place around the country.  The federal relicensing process every 50 years under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has played a large part in removing dams rather than replacing them.

Our neighboring state of Wisconsin has a very active dam removal program, and our DNR is studying several proposals to remove more dams here.  Minnesota dam removal on the Cannon and Kettle rivers opened up river routes and rapids for canoers on those popular recreational rivers.

Xcel plans to take out the Minnesota Falls Dam by the end of this year.  By freeing this section of the Minnesota, it allows an interesting paddle stretch in 2013 that will mark the 50th anniversary of the DNR’s water trails program.

About John Helland

John Helland
John Helland is a history graduate of the University of Minnesota. He served as the nonpartisan legislative research analyst for the Minnesota House of Representatives after graduation. He worked extensively on environment and natural resources legislation and issues, and was the primary nonpartisan research staffer for the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committees from 1971 to 2008.
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