Pushing the limits: Flooding threat puts spotlight on Minnesota's 'poor,' aging and underfunded dams

May 01, 2019 04:01 PM

The potential for historic flooding this spring is putting a spotlight on Minnesota's aging dams—an underfunded part of the state's infrastructure that could put homes, businesses and, in some cases, even lives at risk.

Most of the state's dams are more than 50 years old and require ongoing and emergency repairs and reconstruction to maintain their structural integrity, according to the Dam Safety Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).


5 INVESTIGATES found 32 dams in high-hazard areas or areas with significant hazard potential—meaning a failure could cause significant property damage or even loss of life—are in  "poor" or "fair" condition, according to a review of more than 1,200 DNR inspection reports.  

Despite those risks, the safety division has consistently received only a fraction of the necessary funding.

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In an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES, DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards said none of the dams on the list are in "imminent danger."

However, the DNR acknowledges that even a dam in "fair" condition means its safety could be jeopardized in extreme weather events, such as the fast-melting snow and heavy rains that created the risk for historic flooding across the state this spring.

Such flooding poses an even greater risk in towns like Lanesboro in southeastern Minnesota. The 150-year-old historic dam on the Root River is in both "poor" condition and in a high-hazard area due to its proximity to the downtown area.

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"When we had some rain and significant melt, we were all pretty much on pins and needles watching the water come over that dam," Lanesboro Mayor Jason Resseman said.

Resseman says if the hydro-powered dam failed, the town's business district, which is driven by tourism, would be crippled.

"In the back of your mind you hear those reports from the DNR and what their assessment of its structure is; yeah it's a major concern," he said.

Yet, Reeseman says it took nearly a decade to obtain the $4 million and DNR permit needed to proceed with the major re-construction that will finally begin later this year.

"There's no reason a community should have to wait 10 years to get something fixed that's been rated so low by other state agencies," Reeseman said. "They (state officials) were obviously aware of the fact that we had an issue."

Dam funding

The DNR estimates it needs $114 million over the next 20 years for dam safety. That's an average of nearly $6 million per year. Yet, the safety program receives only a third of that on an annual basis.

"We're confident we can work with the legislature to get that money," Richards said. "We understand people take the safety of their communities seriously and we do too."

The lack of funding is one of the reasons the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Minnesota dams a "C" grade last year.

"Given population growth, and the type of storm events that we see these days, we need to make sure we're investing in the future," said engineer Katie Zadrozny, part of team that issued the report. "And not just addressing the problems as they come up and doing these band-aid fixes."

Facing a consistent shortfall in funding, Richards says the DNR prioritizes dams that pose the highest risk.

"We do a rigorous job of maintaining safety, and ensuring the safety of communities in Minnesota," he said.

Top dam priority—still waiting  

However, even the worst dam in the state, which was first designated as the DNR's top priority back in 2007, is still waiting on funding.

The Lake Bronson dam in Kittson County is in "poor" condition with deteriorating concrete, cracks and seepage, according to the state's most recent inspection report.

According to the state's most recent inspection report, the Lake Bronson dam in Kittson County is in "poor" condition with deteriorating concrete, cracks and seepage.

A 2004 DNR study found the 82-year-old dam "has the potential to cause injury and property damage in the City of Lake Bronson" and surrounding areas if it failed.

"It seems strange, that this dam, according to the reports, is pretty much the number one priority dam in Minnesota—and we still don't have the money for it," Dr. Joe Bouvette, former Kittson County commissioner, said.

The DNR, which has made repairs to the dam over the years, first proposed replacing the deteriorating structure back in 2011 for an estimated $9 million.

Today, replacement plans are still not complete and estimated costs have nearly tripled to roughly $25 million.

Estimated costs to repair the Lake Bronson dam have nearly tripled to roughly $25 million.

Bouvette said the most recent cost estimate, which was presented to Kittson County officials last summer, was a "real blow to us."

"It's quite a bit of money but when you have a priority like we have…it's safety and economics," Bouvette added. "It has to be done."

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Eric Chaloux

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