Rapid Changes on the Red River
The DNR is dumping boulders and ripping out dams to bring back fish to the famously flat Red River.
Text and photography by Greg Breining
Who, as a kid, hasn’t dumped rocks into a creek or swiftly flowing gutter to form a riffling little rapids?
Luther Aadland never stopped tinkering. Several decades beyond childhood, he stands before one of his most ambitious creations, a roaring stretch of whitewater, 100 yards long, as many yards across, plunging more than 10 feet over nine boulder weirs. That’s a rapids any kid could envy. It exists, oddly enough, on the otherwise placid Red River of the North, which meanders along the Minnesota–North Dakota border, one of the flattest regions on Earth.
The rapids, completed in 2001, occupies the site of the Riverside Dam at Grand Forks–East Grand Forks, one of nine dams on the muddy, flood-prone Red. It is the largest of several structures in a plan to remove dams or transform them from insurmountable walls into sloping rapids. By doing so, research scientist Aadland and others in the Minnesota Stream Habitat Program of the Department of Natural Resources are allowing fish free passage to many additional miles of the Red and its tributaries.
"What we are trying to do is reconnect the critical habitat," Aadland says. "Piece by piece we’re trying to get some of these stretches of river hooked up."
If the DNR is right, the result should be more fish, better fishing, and the restoration of the virtually extirpated lake sturgeon. The plan also promises to make the river a safer and more attractive place to fish and boat.
In 1925 the original Riverside Dam was built, like many dams on the Red, to impound a water supply for growing cities. In 1989 it was rebuilt, about 800 feet downstream. In recent years, flow from the newer dam had severely eroded the riverbanks. And the dam was dangerous, creating a powerful recirculating hydraulic where several people had drowned.
After the 1997 floods, Riverside Dam was to be redesigned as part of a $400 million plan led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to relocate levees and reduce future flood damage to Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn. What kind of design would address all these needs—maintain the water supply, reduce erosion, prevent drowning, and allow fish to pass upstream and down?
The DNR put forth this proposal: Add 80,000 tons of boulders—some as large as 6 feet across—to form a long, stair-stepped rapids downstream from the dam. The work would be expensive—about $4 million—but the Corps agreed, as did the city. "It ended up being built with flood-control dollars at comparable cost to alternatives, which wouldn’t have addressed the safety problems or certainly any of the resource problems," Aadland says.
Work began in 2000, with trucks and shovels dumping the boulders into the river below the dam. Now, in place of a drowning machine, the river has navigable rapids, a ramp by which fish can surmount the dam and skilled kayakers can paddle over the dam on their way downstream. The dam still maintains the cities’ reservoir. And the rapids funnel water toward the center of the river to reduce bank erosion.
In the land of sky-blue waters, the Red River is an anomaly—a meandering, northward-flowing waterway prone to damaging floods in a griddle-flat valley. Formed in Breckenridge–Wahpeton by the confluence of the Otter Tail and the Bois de Sioux rivers, the Red forms the North Dakota–Minnesota border and then flows through Manitoba, emptying into Lake Winnipeg, after a course of nearly 550 miles. The Red’s waters naturally billow with gray clouds of silt, the fine sediments that once formed the bed of Glacial Lake Agassiz.
Despite the turbidity, the Red and its many tributaries once formed a productive fishery for channel catfish, walleyes, saugers, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and lake sturgeon—the largest fish in the region. A century ago, the abundant sturgeon often exceeded 100 pounds. A fish taken in 1905 from the Roseau River, a tributary of the Red, was estimated to weigh 400 pounds. Sturgeon wintered in deep, slow pools in the Red, but swam upstream to spawn in the rapids of swift tributaries such as the Otter Tail.
The first dam was built across the Red River near present-day Winnipeg in 1812. Since then dams have gone up at eight more sites. Several high dams were constructed to power mills and generate electricity along the Otter Tail, which flows from western Minnesota. In all, Aadland estimates 500 dams and other fish barriers (such as impassable culverts) have been built on the Red and its tributaries in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Manitoba.
The dams blocked the path between sturgeon wintering pools and spawning rapids and slowly strangled the fishery. Sturgeon virtually disappeared from the Red by the mid-1900s as sexually mature fish died without reaching their spawning grounds. Though reduced water quality and overfishing may have played a role in their disappearance, a DNR fisheries report says "barriers to fish passage are thought to be the most significant obstacle to the restoration of lake sturgeon populations."
Case in point
Sturgeon were not the only fish to suffer. Nor was the Red the only stream in the watershed to lose an important part of its fishery. A case in point: Wild Rice River, which joins the Red near Ada. Since the late 1800s, when the Heiberg Dam was built on the Wild Rice River to power a mill, 12 species of fish, including channel catfish, walleyes, saugers, and smallmouth bass, disappeared from the upper reaches of the Wild Rice. After the dam washed out in the flood of 1965, channel catfish appeared as far as 60 miles upstream. But after the dam was rebuilt in 1977, catfish again vanished from the upper reaches. Now, the river has cut a new channel around the dam, and catfish and other game species have once again appeared far above the dam.
Indeed, the dam may be history. Its owner, the Wild Rice Watershed District, and the DNR have been discussing replacing it with a much lower rapids. The rebuilt dam failed in its original purpose of breaking up river ice, "so there’s no justification for the dam," says Bob Merritt, DNR hydrologist in Detroit Lakes. "And there are so many bad environmental impacts from that dam" including damage to the fishery and channel erosion "that it makes no sense to reconstruct it."
It wasn’t news to anyone in the DNR—that dams slowly kill streams. Unfortunately, the DNR wasn’t able to do much about the problem until individual dams came up for federal relicensing, or until old dams deteriorated to the point where, in the interest of public safety, they had to be either rebuilt or torn down.
The DNR got its chance in the early 1990s, when the federal government reviewed the license of Otter Tail Power’s dams and power plant at Fergus Falls. The Diversion Dam on the Otter Tail had been built to shunt water through a channel to Hoot Lake and then to a powerhouse. When the water was low, the powerhouse drained a 12-mile stretch of the stream. With the renegotiation of the license, Otter Tail Power promised to provide at least some water through the natural channel, allowing fish to live in that stretch.
Unfortunately, a 6-foot-high concrete dam near the power plant kept fish from ascending into the newly restored stretch. The DNR persuaded the company to lower the dam and fill the downstream side with boulders to form a rapids fish could swim through.
A bigger challenge awaited in Fargo, where the city wanted a safer alternative to its Midtown Dam, responsible for at least 19 drownings over the years.
Early proposals would have simply replaced the dam. One would have installed chain-link fence to prevent bystanders from tumbling in. "Of course, that wouldn’t help the canoeists that had come over the top and drown below that dam," Aadland says. And it wouldn’t enable fish to pass.
The DNR proposed the dam be converted to a rapids.
"It was not met with real warmly to begin with because a lot of people wanted another dam," Aadland says.
But the idea found support from at least one group of citizens—River Keepers, a nonprofit devoted to revitalizing the Red. "Because dams have killed people, people stay away from the river," says Bob Backman, the group’s executive director. "But we want people to use the river because people who use the river take care of the river. The dams have to be changed if we’re going to change that perception."
The dam was reconfigured into a rapids in 1998–1999. Now, what some people considered an ugly concrete dam that drowns people has become a rapids where kayakers play in the waves and visitors on shore linger and eat lunch.
Opening hundreds of miles
So far, three dams on the Red and tributaries have been removed and 16 have been modified, opening hundreds of miles of stream to migrating fish. Projects have been paid for with money from various sources: DNR Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local watershed districts, and the DNR dam safety program. North Dakota has also chipped in.
Already about two dozen species of fish are using the artificial rapids to pass upstream to spawn—an early indication the Red is being reconnected.
"This spring we were actually able to see walleyes and suckers spawning in one of the rapids that we built," Aadland says. Surmounting the dams has benefited "virtually everything. This is a very diverse system. There are over 90 species of fish in the Red River basin. And virtually all of them will migrate to varying degrees."
Certainly the biggest beneficiary—in size and impact—will be the lake sturgeon. With new connections between main-stem rivers and headwaters spawning grounds, the DNR and the White Earth Band of Chippewa have reintroduced lake sturgeon into the Red River basin.
So far, survival has been good. Anglers and commercial fishermen have reported catching and releasing 25 percent of the larger fish, which had been tagged before they were stocked. Fish released in Otter Tail Lake have been reported by commercial fishermen netting walleyes in Lake Winnipeg, 500 miles downstream.
As they mature, sturgeon should return to the Red’s upper reaches and tributaries to spawn in turbulent rapids.
What took so long?
The early success of efforts to reconnect the Red raises the question: What took so long? The answer, Aadland says: need and opportunity.
"Sensitivity to some of the damage that dams do is slowly growing," he says. "We’re starting to recognize more of the problems. So solutions follow that change in mentality."
Moreover, it’s tough to find money to yank or modify a dam until circumstances such as relicensing or the failure of the dam itself force government or the dam owner to act.
The Red River isn’t the only watershed being reconnected. Dams have been removed from the Zumbro, Kettle, Root, and Cannon. But work has been fervent in the Red River watershed.
Most barriers on the Red River may soon be eliminated. Conversion of Fargo’s South Dam is planned for this year. Two more dams are the subject of discussion. If those are converted to rapids or removed, that would leave the dam at Drayton, N.D., as the only complete fish barrier remaining on the Red. (The dam at Lockport, Manitoba, allows some fish to pass.)
Elsewhere in the watershed, the DNR plans to modify the dam on the Red Lake River at Crookston, and hopes soon to construct a rapids at another dam site about five miles upstream of Crookston.
"A lot of it is momentum," Aadland says. "People see the positive effects, and it kind of snowballs."
Greg Breining is a contributing editor of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. Reach him at his Web site: gregbreining.com.