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Southwest Minnesota state park suffers numerous setbacks

LUVERNE -- When the Blue Mounds State Park discovered E. coli bacteria in its well and only water source for the park just before Memorial Day last year, it forced campers to bring bottled water from home and find options in nearby towns to fill ...

Bison graze at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne. Jesse Trelstad/Daily Globe


LUVERNE - When the Blue Mounds State Park discovered E. coli bacteria in its well and only water source for the park just before Memorial Day last year, it forced campers to bring bottled water from home and find options in nearby towns to fill up their water tanks and take showers.

What would normally be the start of the peak camping season in Minnesota turned out to be a disappointment, with the park seeing a 25 percent drop in reservations from Memorial Day until mid-June, when catastrophe struck once more with heavy rains and massive flooding of Mound Creek. The flooding was so severe it caused damage to the upper and lower dam structures inside the park and blew out a spillway on the lower structure.

In essence, the flooding wiped out the berm that for years had kept Rock County’s lone water recreation site intact. The sandy swimming beach was eerily vacant of activity during the height of summer last year; the once-pristine water body reduced to trickling streams winding through a maze of lake bottom sediment.

Aside from installing fencing to keep park visitors safe near the lower dam, nothing has been done to try to fix the damage.


And nothing may be done for a while.

Blue Mounds State Park Manager Chris Ingebretsen said the park is still awaiting a decision from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on whether or not the flood damage will be eligible for funding to make the necessary repairs.

“It’s still up for debate. They may deny it,” Ingebretsen said this past week.

The reason, Ingebretsen said, is that an engineering report completed a couple of years ago identified some deficiencies in the dam structure. Those deficiencies hadn’t been corrected before the floods came last June.

Now, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says that even if the dam was brand new, it wouldn’t have survived the severity of the flooding that hit Rock County. In fact, the identified deficiencies weren’t what failed on the structure.

“That’s the argument the DNR will make,” Ingebretsen said. “It looks like a logical and true argument.”

The argument would be made as part of an appeals process - one Ingebretsen said would begin once FEMA makes its initial decision. That decision is anticipated within the next month.

Still, there are some internal conversations taking place within the DNR about the lower dam.


“They’re looking at recreational, cultural and historical aspects of the dam, (and) also looking at the natural resources that are impacted by the dam.”

The impact of the dam on natural resources includes increased sediment build-up, which in turn results in less-than-ideal water quality.

“That half-mile of creek could ultimately be a cleaner stream without the dam,” Ingebretsen said. “It’s questionable how much difference that makes, but it’s certainly being discussed right now.”

Having the dam in place also reduces the available habitat for the Topeka Shiner, a minnow on the federal endangered species list.

“Mound Creek is one of a few places in Minnesota that provides habitat for the Topeka Shiner,” Ingebretsen said. “If the dam is not replaced, it would probably open up another half mile of more habitat on Mound Creek between the upper dam and the lower dam.”

At the same time, Ingebretsen said if the dam isn’t replaced and the spillway restored, they will continue to see a reduction in visitors to one of southwest Minnesota’s few state parks.

“We lost about 25 percent of our camping visitors because of the water being turned off, but when we reopened after the flood, we lost an additional 25 percent,” Ingebretsen said. “Our camping numbers were cut in half because of those two issues. I think that’s a very real assessment.”

The lake provided one of the few opportunities for water recreation in Rock County, with Blue Mounds State Park being the only location to offer canoe and kayak rentals for people.


Despite the ongoing conversations in the DNR, it isn’t an all-or-nothing situation, Ingebretsen said.

“There’s a very real possibility of creating some sort of swimming hole using flood control structures where we would dam up a meander of the creek,” he explained.

The ponded water would be much smaller than what was there before, but it would provide swimming and possibly some boating opportunities on a smaller scale.

“There are very minimal, limited opportunities for that kind of recreation in Rock County, and it would be missed if it disappears,” said Ingebretsen.

While the fate of the dam remains in limbo, there is some positive news coming out of Blue Mounds State Park. The 138-foot-deep well that was compromised by the E. coli bacteria was ultimately abandoned and a new, 330-foot-deep well was drilled during a process that took a month to complete because the drilling had to be done primarily through bedrock.

The drilling was completed in late November, and Ingebretsen said the park is now waiting on final approval from the Minnesota Department of Health.

“I have every expectation that we’ll have drinking water by spring,” he added.

In addition, two of the three culverts damaged or destroyed by the flooding have been replaced. The third, after it was washed out, exposed an old Works Progress Administration project that park officials didn’t know existed.

“We’ve worked with the state historic preservation office and others to determine what to do there,” Ingebretsen shared. “We’re just getting some plans in place for its repair, and we’ll hopefully be working on that in the spring or right after Memorial Day.”

While there won’t be a lake for park users to enjoy this summer, Ingebretsen said Blue Mounds State Park has plenty of other amenities for people to enjoy.

“It’s a great place for hiking, and in terms of seeing Minnesota’s tall grass prairie, this is still the premier place to visit,” he said. “The Sioux quartzite cliffs are outstanding. … The bike trail is still very popular and a great way to see the prairie and the cliffs.”

And Blue Mounds is still the only state park in Minnesota where people can view a bison herd.

“Our bison are healthy and fun to see,” Ingebretsen said, adding that the herd will be expanding to other state parks, beginning with some animals being moved to Minneopa State Park near Mankato this fal


Related Topics: RECREATION
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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