With a goal of stemming erosion and improving fish habitat, Becker County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday, Sept. 15, to approve the grant application process for the removal of the Buck's Mill dam on the Pelican River.
The grant application is the first step of a multi-year process for Becker County and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to acquire the land parcels surrounding the dam in order to begin plans to dismantle it.
"It sounds to me like they are trying to get things back to natural ways so the fish can move," said Don Skarie, District Four Commissioner for Becker County.
Becker County will be applying for nearly $28,000 through the Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program, which is funded by the Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment. The conservation grant is one of the "best value" grants in the state, which only requires 10% local funding with the rest being covered by the state, according to a Minnesota DNR official.
The preliminary plans for the dam site will include a series of rocks, similar to Dunton Locks in Detroit Lakes, that will allow for a gradual slope of the river and serve as a natural highway for fish to move upstream and downstream. The dam is on private property just off Highway 59 south of Detroit Lakes.
Currently, fish are prevented by the dam from migrating upstream, which has led to population control issues for some species of fish as well as erosion problems along the shoreline near the dam site, according to Nicholas Kludt, Red River fisheries specialist at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Kludt explained the dam's narrow bottle neck forces water over the structure at a much higher velocity, which has led to a blowout hole on the downstream side of the dam with the fast water eroding the river's shoreline.
"The effect is just like when you put your thumb over a garden hose," said Kludt. "That's part of where the watershed district and the soil and water conservation district come in. They've already done some shoreline stabilization some years ago, specifically to deal with this entire problem."
The current Buck's Mill dam was constructed in 1937 and replaced the old dam and shipping locks system, which were constructed around the beginning of the 20th Century. Kludt said that during the construction of the current dam, a man-made channel was created to guide the river's path, which hindered natural river habitat.
"Normally, you would see pool, riffle, run, stream habitat sequencing," Kludt said. "There, you see none of that. It's just flatbed all the way around, so its habitat value is extremely limited in its current state."
Minnesota DNR is also under strict regulations to maintain river and lake water levels with any project that may affect them, Kludt said. He added that Minnesota DNR has a lot of experience adhering to these regulations and the water levels of the Pelican River, and surrounding bodies, will not be affected.
"If (Becker County) gets the grant, there is still work to be done to get the property," said Nathan Olson, Area Fisheries Supervisor for Minnesota DNR. "So you're looking at a year, maybe a year and a half to close on the sale of that property before it gets into county hands."
Olson said Minnesota DNR has been anticipating this project for many years because of all the work going into the Pelican River, including other dam removals, and this project would be the last step in finishing that large scale revitalization.
If completed, it would allow fish to move from the Otter Tail River, through Pelican River, all the way to Big Floyd Lake just north of Detroit Lakes, a distance of more than 100 miles by car.
"(The project) has been talked about for several years and how we can improve (Pelican River)," said John Okeson, District Three Commissioner for Becker County.
Okeson said he served on Lake View Township's board for nearly 20 years and preventing shoreline erosion was always always on their minds since he had personally seen the shoreline rebuilt twice.
Mill levy increase
In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved the maximum tax levy increase for the 2021 budget cycle.
The commissioners will allow for maximum tax levy increase of 2.7%, but may end up being lower than that, Okeson said.
"We can't go above that," said Okeson. "We've always maintained a pretty low levy increase the years I've been on the board."
Over 10 years, Okeson said, the average increase has been between 2% and 3%.
"We've been pretty good about keeping it level," said Don Skarie. "There's also been a fairly substantial increase in property values, and new buildings, so if a person's (property) value doesn't go up, they'll actually probably get a decrease in their taxes from this."
The next regular meeting of the Becker County Board of Commissioners will be Tueday Oct. 6.