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Brad Dokken: Last step in the long process to ‘Reconnect the Red’ is under way with Drayton Dam project

When complete, the new Drayton Dam will resemble a sloping set of rapids that will end at the face of the current dam.

Drayton Dam June 2021.jpg
The Drayton Dam on the Red River at Drayton, North Dakota, is seen Monday, June 28, 2021.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

DRAYTON, N.D. — It’s still in the early stages, but work is underway on a project to remove the Drayton Dam on the Red River and replace it with an “arched rock rapids” structure about 100 feet upstream that is safer to humans and accommodates fish passage while still functioning as a dam.

HSG Park Joint Venture LLC of Harvey, N.D., was awarded the contract for the $7.7 million project, which is part of the mitigation for the Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion Project.

Project design partners include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality and various other state and local entities.

According to Justin Fisher, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fargo, the contractors began a “mobilization process” in August to stockpile the tons upon tons of riprap and boulders that will be required for the project and begin constructing a rock “crossway” on the upstream side of the existing dam.

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The hope, Fisher says, is to get the sheet piling — material used to construct retaining walls — in place this fall. The sheet piling will set the framework for the dam removal as the next step, Fisher says.

When the dam is actually removed will depend on water conditions. It could be late December if conditions allow, he said; if not, removal will be pushed to next spring.

The Drayton Dam is the last of eight dams on the U.S. side of the Red River to be modified from lowhead dams to rock-riffle structures as part of efforts to “reconnect the Red” that began more than 20 years ago.

The plans were developed jointly between the Minnesota DNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and reflect the current “best practices” for fish passage.

Widely referred to as “drowning machines” for their dangerous roller currents, lowhead dams only accommodate fish passage during floods. At least 15 people have drowned below the Drayton Dam, most recently in 2021, since it was constructed in 1964.

When complete, the new Drayton Dam will resemble a sloping set of rapids that will end at the face of the current dam. Fish then will have clear sailing all the way from the source of the Red River at Wahpeton-Breckenridge to the St. Andrews Lock and Dam in Lockport, Manitoba, north of Winnipeg.

“This rock passageway will not only aesthetically make it better, but from an ecological context as well as safety, it’s going to be a great addition,” Fisher said.

Combined with similar projects on Red River tributaries, the ecological benefits become even more significant. This past spring, for example, spawning sturgeon were documented in the upper Otter Tail River for the first time in more than 100 years, thanks to restoration efforts made possible by fish passage projects elsewhere in the Red River Basin.

“Those types of things that we’re seeing already are only going to really accentuate the importance of this project,” Fisher said. “But also, if there’s actually true flowage and ability for sturgeon to move through that whole Red River Basin, that’s going to be a tremendous attribute.”

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Riverside Dam in Grand Forks was the most recent dam to be retrofitted to a rock-riffle structure in a project completed in 2001, joining the North, Midtown and South dams in Fargo and the Hickson, Christine and Kidder dams farther upstream.

041021.C.GFH.BRADDOKKEN-Riverside Dam .jpg
Riverside Dam in Grand Forks, seen here April 7, 2021, was the most recent dam to be converted from a lowhead dam to a rock-riffle structure that accommodates fish passage in a project completed in 2001. Work is under way on a similar project at the Drayton Dam, the last of eight dams on the U.S. side of the Red to be modified from a lowhead dam to a structure that accommodates fish passage, while improving safety and aesthetics.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

According to Herald archives, the Riverside Dam project required more than 80,000 tons of rock and an additional 70,000 tons of dirt and clay.

As with previous projects, experts from the Minnesota DNR will provide input on the design and placement of the rocks.

“These rock fishways, actually — it’s half art and half science, and really, it’s about getting rocks in the right places to allow for those slack areas behind them so as fish move up, they have areas to rest,” Fisher said. “It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t have exact-fit pieces until you’re in the moment.”

Getting to this point has been a long time coming. I remember attending an open house and public meeting in January 2009 up in Drayton. Best-case scenario, those attending the meeting were told, no project would begin before 2011 or 2012.

Anglers who spend all of their time fishing below the barrier the Drayton Dam presents may not like the new design — especially at first — but the fish passage that will be provided when the project is complete represents one of the most significant developments on the Red River in the past century.

This one’s a biggie.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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