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A rendering of what the Pelican River in downtown Pelican Rapids, Minn., would look like if the current dam was removed and replaced by rapids. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

McFeely: Pelican Rapids confronts future of downtown dam

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. -- Call Luther Aadland the River Whisperer. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources river ecology specialist has spent a career working to restore waterways to their historic function and look. Pelican Rapids, with the city's namesake river cutting through downtown, might be next on his list of projects.

No decisions have been made but the city, Aadland and the DNR will host an informational meeting Wednesday, Jan. 30, at the Lake Region Electric Cooperative in the lakes country town to discuss — questions from community members encouraged — the future of the aging city-owned dam on the Pelican River. The dam's outlet, with water dropping 14 feet, provides the backdrop for the city's famed Pelican Pete statue where scores of tourists have snapped photographs over the decades.

"There's some history there with the dam going back generations," Pelican Rapids Mayor Brent Frazier said. "That might make it difficult for some if you're talking about removing it, so we hope we can have a good discussion and answer everybody's questions."

The city has discussed the dam's future for years, since it was placed on the state's most-dangerous list and an inspection revealed it would need more than $1 million worth of repairs to remain safe in the long-term. Frazier said the dam isn't in danger of collapsing, but the city council needs to make a decision about what it wants to do. The dam was originally built in 1870.

The opportunity is there for the state to remove the dam and replace it with gradient rapids, with the cost being covered by Minnesota's Outdoor Heritage Fund. If Pelican Rapids decides to keep the dam and repair it, the city will be on the hook for full costs.

This is where Aadland enters the picture. Based in Fergus Falls, the Ph.D specializes in river restoration, removing or altering dams that were most often built in the late 1800s or early 1900s for power generation, flood control or irrigation. Aadland's work is on display in Fargo-Moorhead, where a series of high-hazard dams on the Red River were altered with boulders to eliminate the dangerous undertow and allow year-around fish passage.

He's also helped with restorations on the Minnesota, Otter Tail, Pomme de Terre, Zumbro and other rivers.

"As someone who restores rivers, this has almost become routine," Aadland said.

Aadland is careful to speak only in generalities about the effects of river restoration because he said "the city of Pelican Rapids owns this dam, and this is entirely their decision." But he's hosted meetings and made presentations in the town before about what removing the dam would look like.

The benefits include fish passage, safety, recreation and money savings.

"Broadly speaking, most of these dams are old and in need of repair," Aadland said. "For smaller towns, in particular, maintaining an aging dam becomes a drain on the community and government that has to deal with them."

Renderings Aadland showed in a PowerPoint presentation last year give a glimpse of what the Pelican River might look like once the dam is removed. Instead of water pouring out from behind the dam, the river gradually tumbles through a rock rapids before spilling into the riverbed. The rendering shows people in kayaks negotiating the rapids.

And, yes, Pelican Pete still stands sentinel over the river.

Aadland, too, says dam removal allows fish in rivers to return to their historic habitat. Dams act as barriers, blocking the upstream migration of numerous species. Aadland said 11 fish species found in the Pelican River and 35 species found in the Otter Tail River watershed are absent upstream of the Pelican Rapids dam.

"Most of the fish return to their historic areas fairly quickly after a dam is removed," Aadland said. "It's pretty dramatic. There are reasons to think about restoring rivers."

Wednesday's meeting will include presentations on dam repair options from city administrator Dan Solga and river restoration options from Aadland. More meetings are planned before a decision is made, Frazier said.