Commissioners in Chippewa Co., Minn., say no to joint powers for Minnesota Falls dam

MONTEVIDEO -- A recent decision by the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners adds to the drama of whether a 1905-vintage dam on the Minnesota River is removed or repaired this year.

Minnesota Falls dam
These flood gates are part of the raceway structure of the Minnesota Falls dam, which once held a hydro-generation system. A worker drowned last summer after falling from the gate structure during a period of high flow on the river. Tribune file photo

MONTEVIDEO -- A recent decision by the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners adds to the drama of whether a 1905-vintage dam on the Minnesota River is removed or repaired this year.

The commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to not join a joint powers group studying the possibility of public ownership of the Minnesota Falls dam. The city of Granite Falls and Yellow Medicine County had recently approved the agreement.

The commissioners are concerned about the perpetual liability that would come with ownership of the dam, said Jeffrey Lopez, a member of the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners. The commissioners learned that the dam could not be insured.

The commissioners also are concerned about the cost of repairing the dam and the uncertainty about long-term maintenance costs. Lopez noted that current estimates indicate it could cost $2 million to $3 million to bring the 105-year-old structure up to code. An engineering report described the structure as in poor condition; there has not been any significant maintenance performed on it since 1964, he noted.

The County Board's decision will not stop the effort to explore the possibility of saving the dam, according to Mayor Dave Smiglewski of Granite Falls. He said the Chippewa County Board's action was disappointing to the other partners in the venture. "Everybody else is interested in working together,'' he said.


The 14-foot-high, 600-foot-wide dam is located a few miles downstream of Granite Falls and is owned by Xcel Energy. It no longer has any use for it and has decided to remove the dam rather than make costly repairs to meet state and federal safety requirements.

The company said it would be willing to transfer ownership of the dam to a public entity but needs to have a decision by July.

Driving the interest in maintaining the dam is the fact that the water intake for the Granite Falls Energy ethanol plant is located in the dam's reservoir. It would cost the company an estimated $1.5 million to $2 million to modify its intake if the dam is removed.

The ethanol company has supported the joint powers agreement to explore saving the dam. Interest in the project has also been shown recently by Minnesota Valley Co-op Power and Light, which supplies electricity to the ethanol plant, and Fagen Engineering, based in Granite Falls.

Xcel Energy has estimated it would cost the company around $1.5 million to remove the dam. The joint powers group is waiting for a separate engineering study examining what it would cost to bring the dam up to current safety standards.

Mayor Smiglewski said the joint powers group has learned that state law would allow a public entity to take ownership of the dam without legislative approval. However, the joint powers group believes that some state funding will likely be needed to help in the costs of repairing the structure. The ethanol company has offered to set aside funds annually for ongoing maintenance needs if the facility is preserved, he said.

The city of Granite Falls had explored the possibility of reinstalling hydroelectric generation at the dam. It was determined to not be economically feasible due to environmental requirements.

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