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Public ownership of Minnesota Falls dam?

Yellow Medicine County will pursue discussions aimed at the possible transfer of the Minnesota Falls dam from Xcel Energy to public ownership. Xcel intends to remove the 105-year-old dam next year. Tribune file photo

GRANITE FALLS -- Yellow Medicine County will pursue discussions aimed at the possible transfer of the Minnesota Falls dam from Xcel Energy to public ownership.

Board Chair Dick Wambeke, Granite Falls, urged the commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday to support discussions that could lead to the transfer of the dam to public ownership. He'd like to see the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources acquire the property and build an "engineered, rocks rapids'' in place of the existing, 105-year old structure.

He supports the possibility of Yellow Medicine and Chippewa counties and the City of Granite Falls accepting ownership of the structure if it leads to the same outcome of developing the rock rapids. The public entities would have the possibility of obtaining state bonding funds for such a project. As a private company, Xcel is not eligible for state bond funds for such a project, Wambeke explained.

Tuesday's discussion comes on the heels of the release of an Environmental Assessment Worksheet by Excel Energy on the dam, which is located on the Minnesota River downstream of Granite Falls. The EAW found no significant environmental harm in Xcel's plans to remove it, and benefits to the river and its fish resources if it is.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's dam safety division has ordered the company to either repair or remove the structure due to its condition and safety concerns.

Xcel indicated it wants to remove the dam next year. It no longer serves any purpose for the company.

Wambeke said representatives from Yellow Medicine and Chippewa County and the City of Granite Falls met June 22 with Xcel Energy representatives to discuss options for the dam.

It will cost Xcel an estimated $2.5 million to remove it. That compares to estimates of $6 million to $7 million to repair it, and around $6 million to develop a rock rapids structure.

Wambeke would like to see a rock rapids structure developed to maintain the elevation of the river above the current dam site.

Granite Falls Energy has its water intake for its ethanol plant located upstream of the dam. It would have to invest and estimated $2 million to modify the intake if the dam is removed.

Also, Wambeke said he is concerned that lowering the river elevation would cause unsightly mud flats to appear upstream. He'd like to see a test draw down completed on the river before any final decision is made. Previous attempts to conduct a draw down have not succeeded due to high water flows in recent years.

Although the commissioners indicated support for Wambeke's goals, they noted they have some reluctance to accept ownership of the dam. Liability was the main concern.

"It doesn't hurt to sit down and look, find out the facts on it,'' said Commissioner Gary Johnson, rural Montevideo. "I hate to see you have a meeting just to have a meeting when you know you're not going to (have) ownership on it. If I had to vote today, I'd say no I'm not going to go in on it because of the liability issue.''

Johnson said he believes the dam would stand another 100 years if left alone.

Commissioner Greg Renneke, Wood Lake, said he believes the DNR should ''step up to the plate.'' He voiced concerns that "pulling the plug'' by removing the dam would cause the river to look "terrible'' in the portion running through Granite Falls. "It's going to ruin the city,'' he said.

Wambeke said local legislators had authored a bill during the last session to transfer the dam to the DNR, but it did not advance.

Tom Cherveny

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

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