Senate committee visits area on bonding tour

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/NEWS LEADER State senators gather with Lanesboro Mayor Jason Resseman in front of the Lanesboro dam to listen to a presentation. From left, are Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm, Sen. Jerry Relph of St. Cloud, Sen. John Jasinski of Faribault, Mayor Resseman, Sen. David Senjem of Rochester, who is chairperson of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, Sen. Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls, Sen. Charles Wiger of Maplewood and Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Dams and bicycles were the focus of attention Wednesday, Nov. 6 — in spite of several inches of snow that fell overnight — as members of the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee viewed the Lanesboro dam, which the city is requesting funding for its restoration, and heard requests for extension of the Preston-Harmony bike trail during a tour of southeastern Minnesota.

The first stop was at the dam off Parkway Street, with a history of the dam given to members of the committee as they stayed warm on the bus, after which they deboarded and got an up-close look at the historic but deficient structure.  The dam was built in 1868, a gravity arch dam built of dry-stacked limestone blocks, one of only six left in the United States. 

It was originally built to create a boating and fishing lake for recreation and tourism and to power three large flour mills.  Power generation was begun in 1895 by a private company. The Village of Lanesboro purchased the power plant in 1903 and continues to produce power today. In 1925, a second hydroelectric generator was added, and in 1967, the plant was reduced back to a single generator. 

In 1972, the power channel had repairs done, and in 1982, the dam was added to the National Register of Historic Places.  Repairs were done to the dam’s main spillway in 1985.

The dam is considered a “high hazard” dam, according to the report for the senators.  In 2010-2011, the Department of Natural Resources found the dam to be structurally deficient and failure would result in loss of life downstream, the report noted, meaning the dam must be removed or restored. 

In 2017, the Legislature allocated $4 million for repairs and the city hired Ayres Associates to design dam repairs in 2017.

Proposed repairs to the dam include addressing design issues such as: the main spillway which is structurally unstable, causing leaks through blocks where sediment passes through; the pins that are holding the blocks in place need replacing as they are corroded or likely gone; the power canal wall is unstable; the power channel gates need replacement as they are wooden, difficult to operate and the openings are too small; a scour hole has developed at the base of the dam; and the dam has inadequate capacity to pass a 100 year storm so it needs repairs.

The proposed project includes constructing a new cellular dam upstream of the existing main spillway. A cellular dam is a series of large diameter cofferdams filled with stone and capped with concrete, which takes the pressure off the existing dam and avoids changing the historic appearance of the dam.

The project also includes a new main spillway cap as the main spillway is uneven; a new power channel wall and gates with an electric motor operation and remote open enclosed, scour hole repair, a new secondary spillway, and coordination with the DNR shore fishing station.        

The Senate committee also reviewed construction information. The city took bids in April with two bid schedules, one for completion in 2019 and one for completion in 2020.  Four bidders submitted bids ranging up to $4.2 million. The low bidder was Icon Constructors of Mabel, for completion in December 2020 at a cost of $3.7 million.  Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2020. 

Hydroelectric operational changes required by the DNR at the city’s cost involve updating the inspection, operation and maintenance plan (IOMP) for the dam as part of the project.  The DNR “raised concerns about fluctuations in river flows and water levels below the dam due to operation of the hydroelectric generator, and the potential impacts to aquatic life and resources,” the report noted.

The city had historically operated the hydroelectric generator whenever flows were high enough to keep water flowing over the main spillway and below the range where the power channel gates were closed, which maximized power generation.  The city will now only be allowed to operate the hydroelectric generator within a 0.1-foot water surface elevation range, and be required to stage the closing of the generator gates 10 percent of every 10 to 20 minutes, depending on flows, which will significantly reduce the amount of time the hydroelectric generator is in operation and limit the city’s ability to generate power, due to limited river level range and burden on the operational staff of two people, according to the report.

The city averaged 600,000 kilowatt hours of electricity generated by the hydroelectric generator between years 2013 and 2017, but under new parameters, average production is expected to drop to 362,000 kilowatt hours, for a 40 percent drop, according to city officials.  The new average assumes new operational parameters don’t limit the city’s ability to operate during all opportunities – periods where the river is within operational range for less than one to two days will be feasible.  The dam project will include remote water level sensors and upgrades to allow the city to better monitor water levels and manage hydroelectric generation.

Following the presentation of that information, the committee’s members ventured out into the early November slush to see the dam and stand for photos to take back for reference as they make decisions regarding what projects out of the numerous listed on the tour will receive funding. 

Trail update

Up the street, the senators gathered at the Lanesboro Visitors’ Center to hear a presentation on the Blufflands State Trail, the segment connecting Preston to Carimona, given by Preston city administrator Joe Hoffman and Preston tourism director Gabby Kinneberg. 

Hoffman handed out booklets that covered the basic tenets of the trail’s proposal, noting Forestville Trail efforts began in the early 1990s, options completed in 1998, purchases completed in 2002, DNR trail master plan completed in 2003 and construction began in 2012-2013. 

This legislatively-authorized state trail, a DNR tier 1 designation as a “destination trail,” will connect Forestville State Park and Historic Forestville to the Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley state trails. It will be 10 miles long with 12 bridges along the South Branch Root River from Preston to Forestville State Park. The project is a Minnesota Parks & Trails Council 2018-2019 legislative priority project.

The city of Preston has invested over $200,000 on the in-town trail that connects the Forestville Trail with the Harmony-Preston Valley Trail, the report noted. 

Kinneberg remarked that the Harmony-Preston trail is “one of the most heavily traveled” trails in the state.

“Without the bike trail, where would our town be?” she questioned rhetorically, adding that there have been new businesses that have chosen to locate in Preston because it is part of a tourism hub. 

“There were 86,000 users who came through the Preston trailhead, and the vast majority of them were visiting other communities in the area,” Hoffman added.

A member of the committee inquired of the trail, “Is it just bikes?” 

Hoffman replied that the trail serves bicyclists.  “There are plenty of trails for snowmobiling…as much as we don’t want snow this early, it’s a beautiful day in Bluff Country,” he said.

Kinneberg agreed, “I would say that the majority (of people come to Bluff Country) for biking, with different recreational opportunities.  They do groom the trail for cross-country skiing, so it isn’t just for summer and fall.” 

Someone asked about whether there are established biking loops on the trail that bring riders back to the community from which they left, but Hoffman and Kinneberg answered that that’s not usually the case because they tend to venture out on their own, and that there are campers who stay at grounds around the area and enjoy using the trails for day trips. 

Hoffman stated that the trail currently reaches a stop 2.7 miles from Forestville State Park and that it is almost complete enough to be family-friendly, but not quite yet. 

“This project would be $4 million to about $5.2 million to get from Preston to Carimona,” he said. “Bridges will be the cost. We’ve done a cost estimate in 2013, and we’ve figured about 3 percent increase a year.  We spoke with the DNR to make sure the route is still (appropriate).  All the land is owned by the state. The city, in the late 1990s, built a connecting trail from the Forestville trail to the Preston-Harmony trail.” 

He closed on the bike trail discussion by thanking the committee for hearing the presentation.  “All in all, we appreciate the past support,” he said.

Veterans home

Hoffman then took the opportunity to update the senators on progress of efforts to build a state veterans home in Preston, as the decision was made last year that the state could contribute $10.2 million toward the home’s construction.  The federal application was submitted and has been considered – the federal government would pay 65 percent of the cost – and a pre-design meeting was held last month. 

“We’re waiting on the January 2020 federal application results,” he said. “We’re optimistic…the home opening is set for January 2022.” 

He brought one issue to the senators’ attention, telling them about how the original plan was for a 72-bed home that would be built for $32 million, but the Minnesota Department of Veterans’ Affairs (MDVA) called for higher construction standards than the architect thought were required, raising the cost of building each room.  That meant that the bed count had to be reduced to 54, but the MDVA was satisfied with the changes to the pre-design. 

However, there are still $4 million in amenities, such as a transfer garage, trash enclosures, an entryway canopy and more, that Hoffman listed for the committee members as he said, “There is a window to do this.  I know it’s unusual to come back for supplemental funds, but…we wouldn’t be asking for anything that isn’t in the Montevideo and Bemidji homes.” 

State Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester) spoke up: “Fifty-four beds.  It doesn’t meet demand.  What’s different about Preston?” 

Hoffman registered that it was his understanding that the MDVA had approved the 54-bed facility and that the Montevideo and Bemidji veterans homes had grander designs than the one proposed for Preston.   

Hoffman and Kinneberg thanked the committee again for hearing their trail presentation, after which the senators enjoyed a cookie to go and filed out into the snow, bound for the next stop on their two-day tour of southern Minnesota.