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Xcel expects 107-year-old Minnesota Falls dam to be removed by end of year

Carl Ohliger of Granite Falls was among residents voicing objections to plans by Xcel Energy to remove the Minnesota Falls dam during a tour of the site Thursday sponsored by Clean Up the River Environment. "The state has more money than the dam is worth. What noise level (will it take) to stop this?'' he asked. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

GRANITE FALLS -- Xcel Energy remains on track to remove the 107-year-old Minnesota Falls dam yet this year.

A contractor is lined up for the project, but Xcel Energy is waiting for a final permit now under review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before work can begin.

If the permit is approved as expected, the dam could be removed by the end of November, Jim Bodensteiner, Xcel senior environmental analyst and scientist, told more than 80 people who toured the site Thursday night.

The tour and a discussion about the project were sponsored by Clean Up our River Environment. It attracted company representatives, elected officials with Chippewa County and the City of Granite Falls, representatives of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, as well as citizens both favoring and opposing the dam's removal.

The dam is located three miles south of Granite Falls on the Minnesota River, and is owned by Xcel Energy. The 600-foot wide, 14.5 feet high structure held a hydro-generation system that was dismantled in 1961. The reservoir it created also provided cooling water for the Minnesota Valley coal powered generation plant located upstream. The plant no longer operates.

The decision to remove the dam was a business decision on the part of Xcel, Bodensteiner said. It no longer serves a purpose for the company, and removing it is the least cost alternative for the company. Estimates for its removal are in the range of $2 million, as compared to $6 million for repairing the dam to meet state safety requirements.

"The state has more money than the dam is worth. What noise level (will it take) to stop this?'' asked Granite Falls resident Carl Ohliger, among those who voiced objections to its removal.

He and others voiced concerns that the dam's removal would lower upstream water levels on the river and consequently, adversely affect its aesthetics.

The current, low water levels are the result of both the drought conditions, and the removal of stop logs on the dam to lower water at the site in preparation for the dam's removal, according to company officials and Chris Domeier with the Minnesota DNR's fisheries office in Ortonville. Domeier said the river flow is at 30 cubic feet per second due to the drought, a flow not experienced in the last 20 years.

It compares to a 300 cubic feet per second flow normally experienced during low-flow periods in the winter.

During a normal winter flow, Domeier said the river between the Granite Falls and Minnesota Falls dams will offer a series of rapids and exposed, granite boulders once the Minnesota Falls dam is removed. He said it will be visually appealing, and pointed out that the dam's removal would also greatly improve fishing between the two dams.

"There is going to be great fishing in Granite Falls, I can guarantee you.''

Removing the dam will allow sturgeon, walleye, flathead catfish and other species to migrate to spawning habitat above the dam.

He also told residents that putting the dam into public ownership and maintaining it would likely not serve a public purpose. Dams are safety hazards. The hydraulics below them are the cause of many drowning deaths, and there is always a risk of structural failure.

The Minnesota Falls and Granite Falls dams will not serve to stop the migration of Asian carp. Spring flood levels have allowed river water to flow around the dams every third year for the past two decades, he said.

The dam's removal will adversely affect two businesses. Granite Falls Energy plans to modify its water intake structure at the site.

Dave Reimer, owner of the Granite Falls Golf course, said he will need to invest in new irrigation equipment to move the river water he uses for the course.

Before moving ahead with plans to demolish the structure, Bodensteiner said the company offered to transfer the dam's ownership to any interested, viable party. Granite Falls Energy and the City of Granite Falls explored the possibility, but did not move forward.

Granite Falls resident Janet Wambeke questioned whether the dam's removal was being forced at this time due to its age rather than its condition. Matt Peterson, engineer for the project with Barr Engineering, said the state of Minnesota's dam safety division requires regular safety inspections. The dam has a number of structural issues that require addressing. That left the company with the decision of whether to invest in repairing the structure or removing it.

Tom Cherveny

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

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