There has been some discussion on these pages lately about the wonders of removing the dam on the Minnesota River in downtown Granite Falls. Part and partial to that discussion have been theories and ideas about a changing culture and a new awareness of the river's promise and the river's ability to provide a new outlook for our future. I can't say if those ideas are right or wrong but they do push some questions forward about our society's relationship with rivers in general and this river specifically and I think that's good.
Driving this discussion along is the recent removal of the Minnesota Falls Dam three miles downstream and the impending need to deal with the two oldest turbines in the city's hydro-electric plant.
Those turbines spin the two older generators that produce about half of the electrical output of our hydro-electric plant.
Should the city spend money to replace those aging pieces of equipment or should we abandon them and perhaps the entire hydro-electric operation?
Some folks think that if we were to walk away from the needed work, the dam could be removed and the river restored to it's pre-European settlement appearance.
Since the ancient River Warren scoured glacial till away and carved this big valley before dwindling in size to the present day Minnesota, there has been water flowing over bedrock at this site. A remnant of that original falls is the prominent granite outcrop that protrudes from the face of the dam's concrete spillway.
Early European settlers recognized the potential power that swiftly moving water offered, especially for milling and later for generating electricity. That has been a hallmark of this community's existence.
To say we have a complicated relationship with the Minnesota River would be an understatement.
In high water times, and we have seen plenty of them in the past several years, the river seems to do what it wants to do and we can only stand by and try to stay safe. But in normal flows we are able to use the river's flow to produce electricity. The city's dam is in good condition, having undergone a substantial upgrade in 1984-85. Generating capacity was expanded at that time with the addition of a third, higher efficiency, turbine and generator. That generator, along with the older generating equipment, have served the town well and have saved millions of dollars by generating power without using any fuel.
It is expected to be another 30 to 40 years before any other major upgrades are needed. Meanwhile the need to repair or replace some of the oldest hydro equipment is here and if the cost is within our reach, as expected, we will likely do that.
The question of removing the well-maintained dam has a lot of unknowns. However, based on the more than $2 million dollar cost of removing the Minnesota Falls dam, a rock and mortar structure in relatively poor condition, it seems likely that removing this reinforced concrete dam and power plant that are in good condition would cost substantially more, likely between $3 million and $4 million.
Page 2 of 2 - When you add to that the expense of replacing that lost electrical generating capacity with another source, the price is just way too high.
If we were to abandon the hydro-electric plant that produces the renewable energy that the city needs and is required to have, we would incur much higher costs to replace that power from a different source, and it may or may not be as environmentally friendly as our present carbon-free operation is. Doing so could also force us to give up our ability to shave our local peak electrical demand which would mean higher costs to local residents.
Instead, we will let the river flow, and use the force of gravity on that water to make clean electricity. Investing in our local hydro-electric plant is worthwhile. And talking about the river is, too.