The Lasting Protective Value of an Urban Dam


Well over a century ago, our ancestors built a dam for a mill near the site of the current liquor store, and later rebuilt at the current location.  The dam serves a very basic city service for its residents:  the protection of public and private property.  The DNR calls our dam a “drowning machine” even though no one has drowned.    Based on their argument, they should outlaw swimming at Cottonwood Lake tomorrow and ban hunting altogether.  A retrofit that would address their safety and fish passage concerns has been used in similar situations with great success.


In a previous presentation to the city council we “Save the Windom Dam” supporters explained how a dam minimizes slope stability risks in the Rolling Green neighborhood, and how the University of North Dakota found that low head dams minimize the erosive potential of riverbanks in the reservoir area of low head dams.  This is critical in Windom because of the strong meandering nature of the Des Moines River.  The dam is needed for public safety and to protect the millions of dollars of public infrastructure and private property along the river in Windom.  The DNR admitted to this when they stated “…there is a potential for property to be damaged by erosion from the current natural river condition…”. 


The DNR rules are written so that their “restoration projects” are supposedly prohibited if the work… “will adversely impact public infrastructure, particularly roads and drainage systems.”  There is no protection given in this rule for private property owners that would be adversely affected by their actions, and the environment we had.   


We cited information that professional advice is essential before undertaking a drastic change such as removing a reservoir environment in the middle of a city.  The city has done nothing resembling a reasoned systematic engineering review.  The DNR has not considered and addressed risks to public and private property.

A riverbank may not drastically erode this year or next year due to the lack of a dam; bridge pilings may or may not scour away due to the lack of a dam, and a riverbank at Island Park may or may not erode away due to faster floodwater flows due to the lack of a dam this year.  But why should such increased risks be forced upon those of us who had trusted that a city would be a responsible steward of public infrastructure, and protect public and private property from harm?  Dealing with slumping ground in Rolling Green 10 years from now, or seriously eroding riverbanks because of floodwaters caused by a dam removal today will be too late.  Present day Windom has literally grown up around a reservoir environment that has protected Windom over the decades from the damaging effects of an otherwise classic meandering river that does in fact flood from time to time.  Just look upstream or downstream on a satellite photo and you will see the clear difference in the river alignment and how it is prone to substantial meandering.  It is not a perfect marriage by any means, but it has served Windom well overall for over a century. 


This dam and reservoir provides a wetland environment where geese, ducks, pelicans, herons, egrets, eagles, songbirds and muskrats as well as turtles and fish once flourished.  There are families of geese with literally dozens of baby geese that used to come and graze in backyards come Mother’s day every year.  That is, until this year, when the pond environment was seriously damaged with no apology or regret expressed by anyone, including most notably the DNR.  Herons and Egrets are no longer seen daily in the river.  This has occurred since the DNR prevented the riverbank restoration.  If a private citizen had caused this level of damage to land managed by the DNR, they would have been prosecuted.  Instead the DNR has misled us twice in writing about their true intentions, misled the city about their rights under the administrative rules, and is using our public funds in a very coercive manner instead of a consensus-building, constructive manner.   


The City, riverside residents, hunters, those who enjoy the park for a leisurely picnic or just a drive to view the dam, and users of the park sports fields are just some of the stakeholders who will have to live closely with the enduring consequences and increased risks.  In the case of landowners this matter probably involves their greatest investment – their homes.  Other people that want to impose their view of an ideal river setting upon the City on behalf of clams, sturgeon and kayaks would only stop by and visit from time to time.


The latest plan from city staff is that it will take years to figure it out and that we’ll just have to literally “cross our fingers” and hope for the best in the meantime.   The “Save the Windom Dam” group feels that we need to be more proactive.  This needs a whole lot more effort, and sooner rather than years later.  If you agree, please tell someone in charge at City Hall and let them know.  Also we would kindly welcome help from anyone in this “Save the Windom Dam” project.  Please contact our representative Bob Williams at or 831-3363 if you are interested in actively helping.