It may seem like a small thing, a minnow in the lake of news, that Becker County landed a $26,225 grant to help reroute the Pelican River to bypass the Bucks Mill Dam.
But with that DNR grant, the county will be able to buy a piece of land, about 1½ acres, from willing private sellers. And that piece of land, added to the DNR-owned land in the area, will allow the bigger, sturgeon-sized project to proceed.
In the end, the most comprehensive plan envisions putting the Pelican River back in its ancestral bed, and using rock arch rapids to maintain the current water level of the lakes on the Pelican River chain, said Nicholas Kludt, Red River fisheries specialist with the Minnesota DNR.
Even if the river isn’t returned to its ancestral bed, the dam will either be bypassed or removed to allow fish to move up and down the river via rock arch rapids.
The river was rerouted in the late 1800s when the original dam was built by the Bucks family, Kludt said. It was replaced by the existing dam, which was built upstream in 1937.
From the air, the ancestral riverbed looks like wetlands, running about 50 yards from the existing river. And that streambed could be restored, now that the county can start the purchasing process for that 1½-acre plot of land. The DNR already owns the rest of the land needed for the project.
The DNR is letting either Becker County or the Pelican River Watershed District take the lead on the big project. Whoever takes the lead will apply for a substantial grant from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to pay for the project, and will hire a consulting engineering firm to develop the plans.
The DNR will help the county or watershed district with the entire process, since the local entities don’t have expertise to write specific bid contracts and handle other specialized work. “Our role is to advise them on the right way to go,” Kludt said.
It’s faster and less expensive for the DNR to partner with a local governmental unit or lake association to get dams removed and replaced with rock rapids, because there is much less red tape than if the DNR goes it alone, he said.
“You can go to Bucks Mill Dam in the spring and see hundreds, if not thousands of walleyes backed up, looking to go upriver to spawn,” Kludt said. “That’s a problem. There’s no good spawning habitat there, and we need to fix that.”
The project will rebuild the streambed riffles, crucial to successful spawning and egg production, that were lost with the creation of that dam.
The big picture, Kludt said, is that “the DNR is attempting to reconnect (all the rivers in) the entire Red River Basin as best we are able -- enhancing that fishing for the future.”
River dams, many of them built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration or the Civilian Conservation Corps, were designed to try to control water flow during a period of historic drought. They didn’t work all that well for that, and among the unforeseen consequences was the blocking of natural river processes: Sediments, nutrients, and fish movement. Those dams were often built on slopes, ruining good fish spawning areas. “They did a lot of harm ecologically,” he said.
At Bucks Mill, a shipping lock that remains from the old riverboat era is starting to fall to pieces, and ongoing scouring and shoreland erosion problems are being caused by largely sediment-free water going over the dam, running into that lock, and being pushed back and swirled around, with the "sediment-hungry" water lapping up earth from the riverbank, he said.
The existing setup is also dangerous, and at least one person has drowned there. “Part of the project is to clean up the area and remove a lot of the public safety nuisances,” Kludt said. “The time has just come.”
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It’s also a fact that the land around Bucks Mill is privately owned.
“For years, people have liked to take their families out there in the spring and look at the fish -- it’s a really good family tradition,” Kludt said. “But there is no legal access there -- whether people know it or not, everybody is trespassing. Both sides of the river are privately owned.” The DNR has an access easement to the dam for maintenance, but that doesn’t include access for the public.
Public access will be part of the overall project. To that end, the Becker County Board is considering adding parking to its 1.5-acre site once it is fully acquired, a process that will take one to two years, Kludt said.
If the river is put back into its ancestral riverbed, the existing river “would just be a dry channel,” he said. Project engineers would have to determine the best approach, whether to fill the channel and bury the dam, make wetlands out of the channel, or take some other approach, he said.
Whatever the final design of the project, “lake levels upstream will not change,” he said. The water level in Mill Pond above the dam will remain the same. For one thing, Mill Pond has a DNR "public waters" tag, which means the water level can’t be lowered without the DNR jumping through a lot of legal hoops.
For another thing, the water level of Mill Pond is connected to the success of a muskie-breeding pond on the other side of the dam. “If we did (lower the level of Mill Pond) we would render one of the major pieces of our hatchery infrastructure inoperable,” Kludt said.
In general, removing river dams helps the fish community do better from top to bottom. A river dam is like a blocked artery, he said. “If you remove the block, everything goes better for the entire body.”