Robert Williams, PE

805 Des Moines Drive

Windom MN 56101

 

March 24, 2008

 

Director Kent Lokkesmoe          

500 Lafayette Road

St. Paul MN 55155-4040

 

Mayor Tom Riordan

444 9th Street, PO Box 38

Windom MN 55106

 

RE:  Windom Island Park Dam

 

Dear Director Lokkesmoe:

 

We wish to thank you for your January 7 letter that we received January 25.  We are very pleased to see that it appears there is a potential for some form of agreement of a fix for the Windom dam situation that could be acceptable to at least most local stakeholders.  While it is not our intention to beat a dead horse (or clam), there are some important safety aspects to low head dams that are still not being properly appreciated by the DNR in the area of relative risk.  Any analysis of a safety or engineering issue, be it related to roads, bridges or dams, needs to consider both benefits and costs in order to be valid. 

 

A review of the enclosed article about research done by the University of North Dakota discusses how low head dams have been found to substantially reduce bank erosion in their reservoir areas by slowing and evening out the water flow.  Thus, no one need risk their lives stabilizing eroding riverbanks in flood situations.  http://qninewmedia.typepad.com/photos/storm_damage/index.html  is but one website showing the potential of erosive destruction of a natural meandering river with devastating costs to people, homes, and public property in serious flood events.  For more than a century on a generally continuous basis, dams of one form or another have prevented or greatly minimized similar scenes from happening in Windom, where the Des Moines River does flood on a fairly frequent basis.  While we acknowledge they are certainly not the best answer everywhere, they have been proven to work well in Windom over generations. 

 

Similarly, while there is a public safety risk we are all aware of with the hydraulic roller effect, average 1 per year, there are public safety risks of natural rivers also.  On the average, 50 to 75 people drown every year in watercraft and water accidents.  One noteworthy drowning event in Windom’s history is that of Willie, a little boy age 11 and his little sister Jessie, age 8, the son and daughter of the Methodist Minister.  “The First Methodist Church of Windom, Minnesota (A History)” by Edward Ellsworth Gillam relates that “The children had gone to the river to skate in the afternoon about two o’clock, they broke through the ice, and were drowned.” This event occurred on November 15, 1882, before a dam was in place.  At the time, the Methodist Church was located about a block from the river, in what is now the reservoir area.  As noted in the University of North Dakota article, low head dams have the positive effect of slowing down and evenly distributing the flow of water in the reservoir area.  As I am sure you can appreciate, this leads to thicker ice, making it less likely that people would break through and drown.  People have drowned in Windom that may well not have drowned had a dam been in place.  We do know that in Windom the record indicates the intermittent dam roller effect has not caused any drowning since 1885.  The point we are making here is that the argument commonly made by the DNR which asserts the costs of low head dams in terms of causing drowning has to also logically consider the benefits of the lives not lost in the reservoir due to the thicker and safer ice, slower and more even current flow, and the lives not put at risk because the dam minimizes erosion damage in the reservoir.  With rivers in urban settings we would assert this merits serious consideration and serious unbiased scientific and historical research.  In Windom this may be a moot issue if the riprap retrofit, acceptable to a number of stakeholder groups for a number of reasons, including of course safety, is the basis for a larger solution.  In other urban settings the DNR absolutely needs to discuss both the costs and benefits when asserting dam removals, otherwise the state may be promoting actions that may over the long run demonstrably cause more deaths.  Where the DNR is successful in removing dams in urban settings we would strongly urge the DNR to perform periodic repeated education campaigns to inform people of the increased risks in the former reservoir area since the river hydraulic environment has changed from what people have been accustomed to, otherwise the DNR may inadvertently cause other stories like Willie and Jesse to occur.     

 

The same lack of consideration of both the benefits and costs has again occurred in other aspects of this situation.  As one example, the DNR looked only at the river itself in considering the reservoir issues when considering the interests of organisms such as fish and clams, and the occasional kayaker, among others.  Most other stakeholders also contemplated the very serious damage done to the prime duck, egret, heron, eagle, songbird and muskrat habitats, and some of us considered the piles of clams left dead in portions of the dried up reservoir, in the name of improving the habitat for clams and kayakers.  If “water is life”, then again as noted before, much animal life and particularly migratory bird wetlands habitat have been willfully harmed in the last year which we again find troubling.  As noted before, there are some specific potential reservoir projects that take into account the hydraulics of the reservoir that can maximize shoreline habitat and significantly improve the accessibility of the reservoir for public access that we suggest merit consideration.

 

Having considered the entirety of this situation, again we conclude there are viable long term win-win specific potential solutions to the reservoir area that merit consideration.  We also expect to be included in further discussions, especially since some of us are landowners of the reservoir based on our legal abstracts.  Your previous correspondence mentioned specifically working with the city to determine the appropriate project for this dam.  We assume the following quote in “American Rivers - Friends of the Earth, Cannon River” will be reflective of the DNR involving key stakeholders in future discussions:   Prior to the removal of any dam, the Minnesota DNR involves the general public in the decision-making process.  The agency’s goal is to reach a consensus on which action – repair or removal – is the most appropriate not only for the river ecosystem, but also for the surrounding community.  The Minnesota DNR feels that it is important to have local buy-in and support before removing a structure from the river.”  This will be necessary to assure the maximum buy-in that remedies the serious damage done to the environment since the riverbank was compromised, and fully protects public and private property, and public infrastructure.  Especially since the local consensus is strongly in favor of maintaining the dam and reservoir environment; even more so when the public becomes informed of the risks and unintended consequences associated with dam removal in this particular urban setting. 

 

If the DNR is still taking the position that Windom must go through all the steps associated with a new dam project, then we will again ask that the DNR provide the specific language under the administrative rules that allows this position since we cannot find it.  The City has obtained an engineering report that shows the structure of what is commonly held as the dam itself is sound, with the exception of the west wing wall and the eroded riverbank (the entire report is available on the City’s website).  Further delays (this issue has now been ongoing for more than a year) in performing a simple interim remedy may cause harm to the existing structure, again built with public funds and independently judged by a licensed professional engineer to be in sound condition.  This would also mean that instead of spending some tens of thousands of dollars on what could be considered maintenance level work that could be done in a quality manner in a few days and last many decades, the DNR will instead be requiring the city to spend significantly more on studies, while continuing to hold millions of dollars of public and private property and key infrastructure at increased risk of direct or indirect damage because a less than fully effective dam is in operation.

 

In conclusion we expect much involvement of the local stakeholders in the decision-making process, and an unbiased approach to this situation that takes into full account the previously stated risks to public and private property, and full consideration of the risks along with the benefits of any major change in the pre-existing environment.

 

We are eagerly awaiting your response to this letter and the suggested proposals.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

 

Save the Island Park Dam Group

Robert Williams PE, Representative

 

Cc:       Governor’s Office

            Commissioner Holsten

            Senator Vickerman

            Representative Hamilton

            Administrator Steve Nasby

 

Enc:    University of North Dakota Research Summary