ST. PAUL — Lake Bronson State Park in northwest Minnesota gets its name from a man-made, 327-acre body of water dating back to the Great Depression.
It offers camping, canoeing and hiking opportunities as well as a view of what might be the most neglected dam in the state. And until Minnesota lawmakers can agree on a bonding bill, the $18 million plan to reconstruct it is effectively on hold.
The Minnesota Legislature is slated to reconvene in mid-July for a special session where they will take up bills that failed to pass during the previous special session in June and the regular legislative session before it. Among the bills up for consideration is the bonding bill for 2020 and 2021, one of the most critical sources of funding for infrastructure projects that local and county governments could not otherwise afford.
But Republican and Democratic lawmakers still have yet to agree on a dollar amount for the bonding bill, with the former refusing to accept one for more than $1.3 billion and the latter demanding twice as much. A pandemic that sunk Minnesota's once rosy budget projections for the biennium and instead brought about a deficit is only exacerbating the divide.
"I don’t have a good fix on when the bonding bill is going to come forward," said state Rep. Dan Fabian, whose district is home to the Lake Bronson dam. "I’m relatively confident that there will be one. I think I’m even more confident that when and if there is a bonding bill, that the Lake Bronson dam project will be in the bonding bill."
In his 2020 bonding bill proposal, Gov. Tim Walz called for a $20 million allocation to the state Department of Natural Resources for the repair, reconstruction or removal of dams in Minnesota — enough to fund the Lake Bronson project plus a dam project in Pelican Rapids, another of the DNR’s top funding priorities. Regulators have rated both in poor condition and consider them to have "high" hazard potential, meaning their failure could result in death, injury or property destruction.
A total of 149 out of Minnesota's 1,150 dams are rated in poor or unsatisfactory condition, according to a review of state data, and four pose high-level safety risks: the dams at Lake Bronson, Pelican Rapids, Norway Lake and Lanesboro. The Lanesboro dam, owned by the city of the same name, is currently the only one under repair, while funding from the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund was secured for the Norway Lake dam in 2018 in anticipation of a 2021 project start date.
Like the dam in Lanesboro, the Lake Bronson dam is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And like some 400 other dams in Minnesota, the New Deal-era structure is primarily there for flood control purposes.
While DNR state dam safety engineer Jason Boyle said the dam is "as safe as it can be," the consequences of it ever failing could be severe for the city of Lake Bronson, population 300, just a few miles away. Kelly Bengtson, who recently retired after 23 years as the engineer for Kittson County, where the dam is located, called the prospect of a failure "a very real concern" for not only Lake Bronson but the nearby and similarly sized city of Hallock, 12 miles downstream and 200 feet lower in elevation.
"If certain conditions prevail, half of Hallock would be flooded. In addition, rich Red River Valley farmland would be severely damaged from a dam failure as waters rush their way to the West," Bengtson said in an email.
A records request for copies of the Lake Bronson dam's most recent annual state inspection was not answered by press time. Comments left on its entry in the state dam inventory, however, do note the presence of "deteriorated concrete, cracks, spalling and seepage."
'We're not important to this state'
State and local officials have been aware of the Lake Bronson dam's structural issues for roughly two decades. Steps outlined in the dam's emergency playbook have been taken three times since 1998 because of heavy rainfall, Bengtson said, prompting road closures and spillway construction.
The DNR, which owns the dam, also conducted two studies concerning its repair or replacement since 2000, and has long ranked it at or near the top of its dam funding priorities list. Yet little else was done for the dam in the years that followed, save for maintenance work performed on its mechanical gates.
Local officials, meanwhile, have "been waiting for DNR to do something, and it kind of keeps getting kicked down the road," Kittson County Commissioner and farmer Theresia Gillie said. And until recently, their efforts to raise support for its rehabilitation failed to gain favor with the Minnesota Legislature, which normally approves funding for major DNR projects through bonding.
Costs ballooned all the while and, because a state agency owns the dam, the state is on the hook for all of it.
Now funding for the project, a top priority of the DNR's since 2018, is once again being held up as a result of the legislative stalemate. The squabble also leaves the less expensive Pelican Rapids project in limbo.
Nestled in the heart of Pelican Rapids, a city of 2,400 in west-central Minnesota, the aging dam could also put human life in danger if it were to fail, though city administrator Don Solga said that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
"There’s no potential for the dam wall collapsing. That’s not even an issue because of the way it’s constructed," he said in a recent interview.
But Solga said the dam, first built for recreational purposes, does restrict the movement of some 15 species of fish, preventing them from traveling upstream. Their movement could be restored by removing it and several other nearby dams entirely.
While the cost of repairing a community-owned dam like the one in Pelican Rapids would usually be the city's to bear, the DNR has already agreed to cover all of the estimated $1 million needed to remove it pending the bonding bill's approval. Counties and municipalities ordinarily have to share 50% of project costs in order to receive state funding, though that requirement can be waived.
Such was the case not only for the Pelican Rapids dam but also for the city-owned hydroelectric dam in Lanesboro, whose $4 million-repair the state agreed in 2018 to pick up in its entirety. Dams that pose more immediate risks to life and property — like Lanesboro's, which is located in the middle of the southeast Minnesota city — are typically repaired before ones that do not.
And while states tend to prioritize dam safety projects by their level of hazard potential, the size and cost of a project can also affect its viability. Still, officials have differing views as to why project funding for the Lake Bronson dam — one that local communities have no jurisdiction over despite its risk to their safety — was not approved sooner, when repairs would have been less extensive and less costly.
"It’s a part of the process that we deal with," Fabian, R-Roseau, said. "I’d like to say that there’s a tree outside of the capitol that has all kinds of money on it. But the fact of the matter is there isn’t. And if there was at one time, we found out that tree is a deciduous tree and not a coniferous tree, and the leaves have fallen."
Fabian said that, this year, however, lawmakers plan to ensure that the Lake Bronson project is funded by explicitly naming it in the bonding bill's statutory language. But Boyle, the DNR's state dam safety engineer, said that even when funding for the project is approved it will still take several years to complete.
Bengtson, the former Kittson County engineer, suspects that the region's comparatively small population may partly explain the years-long wait for funding. Gillie shares that view, though she is still hopeful that the funding will come through.
"I know we’re a low population county, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not important to this state," she said.