GRANITE FALLS - Workers are only about one month away from opening what some expect will become western Minnesota’s top destination for paddle sports, and a popular fishing spot as well.

Rachel Construction of St. Michael is on track to have the Minnesota Falls dam on the Minnesota River removed by mid-February.

Work began in mid-December and has continued on schedule, thanks to low water flows and the cold temperatures.

The cold firms up the soil and allows for better access, explained Travis Reuezel, site superintendent with Rachel Construction, during a tour of the site Wednesday.

The 600-foot-long, 14.5-foot-tall structure owned by Xcel Energy has spanned the river south of Granite Falls for 107 years.

With its removal, a three-mile stretch of fast water with rapids will return to the river between this site and the dam in Granite Falls. Six different areas of rapids are expected to re-emerge upstream when the project is completed.

“The most unique habitat in the entire Minnesota River is right here and it is going to be exposed,” said Chris Domeier, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources assistant fisheries supervisor in the Ortonville office. Domeier said the dam’s removal will provide “tremendous angling” opportunities that will extend well beyond the site itself. The spawning habitat that will be restored will benefit a wide variety of game fish, including walleye and sauger, and attract fish such as lake sturgeon and paddle fish from as far as the Mississippi River.

There is already a great deal of interest in the paddling opportunities to be opened up, according to Nicole Zempel, director of the Granite Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber offers kayak and canoe rentals at its downtown Granite Falls building, and has seen ever growing demand for it, she said. The Chamber is looking to promote the new fishing and paddling recreational opportunities that will now be available, she said.

Sara Strassman, director of river restoration in the Upper Midwest for American Rivers, said she has participated in more than 60 dam removal projects as part of her work with the nonprofit organization. She said the recreational opportunities created by a dam’s removal provide economic gains for those communities who embrace and promote them.

The Minnesota Falls dam held a hydro-generation system until 1961, and its reservoir provided cooling water for an upstream, coal-fired plant originally built by Northern States Power in the 1930s. The plant is no longer operated, and Xcel Energy plans to raze it in the next few years, according to company officials.

The dam no longer serves a purpose for the company, and its expected removal cost of $2 million is far less than what it would cost to repair it. The original dam was built atop the naturally occurring granite outcrops on the site. “It showed its age, the way it was built,” said Reuezel. “It seemed to be field stones which may have been taken right out of the river,” he added.

“It definitely would have been difficult or impossible to repair given the condition of the dam,” said Tom MacDonald, project engineer with Barr Engineering of Minneapolis.

Its removal affects two upstream water users. Both need to modify water intake structures to adjust to a lower elevation of the river channel. The Granite Run Golf Course is currently building a new intake, while the Granite Falls Energy ethanol plant has a contractor lined up to modify its intake once the new river channel’s natural course is known.

At this point, the dam has been demolished to about a height of six feet and the river’s current flow of just over 150 cubic feet per second is diverted through a box culvert. Once the entire dam is removed, the natural channel will re-assert itself. Domeier said the process will occur relatively quickly, although it will probably take some time for the natural sand and gravel bottom to fully re-establish itself in the area.

Domeier said little needs to be done to restore the aquatic habitat once the dam is removed. “Mother nature in the end is going to do what she is going to do. She knows,” said Domeier.