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Plans to remove vintage dam pose costly dilemma

Xcel Energy is planning to remove the Minnesota Falls dam located on the Minnesota River downstream of Granite Falls. It provided a reservoir of cooling water for a coal-fired power plant that is no longer operated. Submitted

GRANITE FALLS -- Plans by Xcel Energy to remove a dam of 1905 vintage on the Minnesota River present a costly dilemma for an area ethanol producer.

An engineering study estimates it will cost Granite Falls Energy $2 million to modify its water intake system at the site of the Minnesota Falls dam if the dam is removed.

The ethanol company relies on the Minnesota River as its primary source of water. It previously invested $8.4 million to develop a ¼-mile pipeline and pumping station to tap the river at the recommendation of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"And that's really the frustrating part,'' said Tracey Olson, chief executive officer for the company, when describing the dilemma Monday to Granite Falls City Council members. "We feel we did our due diligence and did everything asked of us, and then we have the rug pulled out from under us.''

Xcel Energy announced in September that it intends to remove the dam, which is located downstream of Granite Falls. Xcel is currently in the process of obtaining permits for the removal. The company no longer needs the dam and would like to end its liability for it, company officials said when announcing the plans.

The state has ordered the company to either remove the dam or renovate it to address deficiencies and safety concerns. It would cost up to $6.9 million to address the issues and keep the dam, according to a study by Barr Engineering. It would cost the company an estimated $2.2 million to $2.9 million to remove it.

There is also the option of building stepped rapids in place of the dam to maintain the river elevation. The Barr study indicated it would cost $5.5 million to $7 million to create the rapids. Xcel Energy would retain liability as long as either the dam or rapids exist.

Olson said Granite Falls Energy would like to see the dam repaired or man-made rapids added so that the river's elevation at the site would remain the same. It's the lowered elevation that would necessitate the costly modifications to Granite Falls Energy's intake and pumping station there, according to a study by Bolton & Menk engineers.

Granite Falls Energy is asking the boards of Yellow Medicine, Chippewa and Renville counties and the Granite Falls council to support its requests for maintaining the river elevation. The ethanol company is exploring whether state support through Legacy funding might be available for the rapids option.

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski said the city would voice its support for the ethanol company, and noted that other upstream users are concerned about Xcel Energy's plans to remove the dam. The lower river elevation would increase irrigation costs for the Granite Run Golf Course. The mayor said he's also heard concerns from local residents about the changed appearance of the river that might result from the dam's removal.

The dam serves as a barrier to fish migration in the river and its removal would greatly improve the upstream fishery. Those benefits might help win state funding support for the man-made rapids option, according to discussions at the meeting.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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