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Tracey Olson, CEO of Granite Falls En-ergy, makes a point at Friday's meeting on the Minnesota Falls dam. Tribune photo by Tom Chervey

Saving Granite Falls dam will be an upstream battle; solutions laborious so far

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GRANITE FALLS -- It seems a difficult task to save a 105-year-old dam to spare an ethanol company the estimated $2 million cost for revamping its water intake system on the Minnesota River.

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No apparent solutions were in the offering as company officials with Xcel Energy and Granite Falls Energy on Friday joined representatives of the Chippewa, Renville and Yellow Medicine county boards, the city of Granite Falls, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and citizen groups to discuss the fate of the Minnesota Falls dam.

The dam is located on the Minnesota River, a few miles downstream from Granite Falls. Xcel Energy is moving forward with plans to remove the deteriorating dam in 2012. It is under state orders to either repair it or remove it to protect public safety.

"It's a huge exposure,'' said William Zawacki, director of hydro plants for Xcel, during discussions on the liability the dam poses for its owner. "We have no use for it. It's served its time.''

The dam held a hydro-generation facility until 1961 and creates a reservoir on the Minnesota River that provided cooling water for a coal-fired plant until 2004.

Xcel Energy has its water intake above the dam. Its removal would put the intake about 9 feet out of the water, according to Tracey Olson, CEO and general manager of the ethanol company. An engineering report estimated it would cost $2 million to replace the intake if the 14.5-foot-high, 600-foot-wide dam were removed.

Representatives from the three counties said they were concerned about the costs to the ethanol company and its farmer owners. Agriculture is the area's economic engine, they said.

There are also concerns about the aesthetics of returning the river to its natural channel and elevation after the dam has kept river elevations higher for so many years, according to Dick Wambeke, chairman of the Yellow Medicine County board. A lower river elevation would adversely affect some property owners along the river, including the Granite Run Golf Course which relies on the river for its irrigation water, he said.

Zawacki and Jim Bodensteiner, Xcel environmental director, said the company is willing to work with any entity interested in taking ownership of the dam. But they emphasized that Xcel is looking to end its liability at the site.

It will cost the company an estimated $2.1 million to $2.8 million to remove the dam and end the company's liability for the site, according to Tom MacDonald, project engineer with Barr Engineering.

It would cost an estimated $5.2 million to $6.9 million to repair it and an estimated $5.5 million to $7 million to build manmade rapids in its place. Repairing the dam or building the rapids would maintain the river elevation for the ethanol company's water intake, but Xcel Energy would consequently remain owner -- and liable -- for the site in either of those cases.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is not interested in ownership of the dam either, according to Mark Matuska, the DNR's regional director or southwestern Minnesota.

It is unlikely that Legacy monies could be used to replace the dam or build the rapids, according to Brad Cobb with the Green River Corridor. Those are traditionally activities funded through state bonding monies. Legacy monies cannot be used to supplant them.

The prospects of obtaining state bonding monies for the dam are not very good either, according to Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City. "I see some problems,'' said Koenen, pointing to the state's budget difficulties. "Not to say it's impossible.''

The dam serves as a barrier to fish migration and its removal would greatly improve fishing and recreational activities on the river above it, according to information provided previously by DNR fisheries staff. Those benefits were cited by the board for Clean Up our River Environment, which approved a resolution on Thursday favoring the removal of the dam, Patrick Moore, executive director, told the meeting attendees.

Wambeke said he'd like to see the parties continue to meet in hopes that some option not yet identified can be found. Xcel will be releasing the Environmental Assessment Worksheet for the project in a few weeks' time, Bodensteiner said.

High river flows have prevented the company from completing a draw down to show what river elevations would be like if the dam is removed. The company will attempt a draw down this year if the river flows allow it, he said.

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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