While the future of the Rapidan Dam should be determined with careful study of the environmental consequences and public cost, the currently inoperable hydropower dam, a century old, may be near the end of its useful life.
An in-depth study of maintaining and removing the dam estimated costs of fixing the dam to be $15 million while completely removing the dam could cost as much as $82 million. Blue Earth County will hold hearings and invite public comment on the issue in the weeks ahead before any decision is made.
Investing another $15 million in the dam seems pointless, unless, of course, there is an imminent safety threat. But $82 million for removing the dam comes with its own sticker shock, and county resources would be stretched without significant outside funding help. Certainly, imposing the entire cost on taxpayers should be avoided.
It appears either option will require multiple funding sources. The recent $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress likely includes millions for dam funding that could be used if the project qualifies. There may be funding from other state and local sources as well.
The county has already made substantial investments in the dam without much to show in return. It has poured $6 million into repairing the dam over the last 20 years. In 2019, the power station was damaged by ice floes making it inoperable.
The report to the county also offered some upsides. The 11.6 million cubic yards of sediment that has accumulated behind the dam contains very little toxic material but does contain nitrogen and phosphorus that could be spread on area farm fields for fertilizer.
Releasing some of the sediment downriver where it eventually flows into the Minnesota River will not greatly add to the sediment load of the Minnesota River, and experts said such flow from the Blue Earth would be a drop in the bucket compared to sediment already in the Minnesota.
Removal of the dam would also open up recreational opportunities for more nearby parkland, canoeing and kayaking. The need to put large rocks in the river to filter the sediment might also create a whitewater effect that recreational boaters find attractive.
Creating a scenic river with recreational opportunities would enhance an already attractive trail system in the county and the region. Those recreational amenities should also be considered in the decision to keep or remove the dam.
The county plans to provide more information on the options on its website and have an open house for the public to weigh in. A removal project would take up to 10 years.
If the county invested $15 million in repairs, it’s likely more would be needed further down the road. Pouring more money into the dam with no prospect of return or making the dam operable as an electric generator would only delay the inevitable decay of the dam.