Fish are happy with dam removal!

Okay, so most of the dams on the Red River have been modified, not removed. Both accomplish the same thing: fish are able to move freely up and down the river, as are canoeists, kayakers, and boaters. Its a win-win situation, and the threat of being caught in a drowning machine is eliminated. I’m posting a link sent to me by C.U.R.E. (Clean Up the River Environment), a group working in the Minnesota River Watershed. The dam in Montevideo was removed earlier this month, check out the pics to see how it was done!

From drowning dam to cool kayak fun

Four hundred miles of the Red River are now reconnected for fish habitat and drowning due to low head dams has now been eliminated(the Midtown Dam in Fargo had a drowning every two years since it was built), thanks to fisheries and water managers in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Hickson Rapids

Christine Rapids


Modifying low head dams on the Red River does three things:  1) provides fish passage through each site at all flows by reconnecting upstream Red River mainstem and tributary habitats with mainstem and tributary habitats downstream, 2) eliminates the life-threatening hydraulic rollers below each dam, and 3) provides higher quality canoeing, kayaking and angling opportunities. For more on this story go to Minnesota Public Radio or view the story done by the Grand Forks Herald.

Wondering about those fish in the river? Check out the Red River Anglers Guide.

Rethinking dams

If you haven’t had a chance yet, review the previous two posts. An interstate and international collaborative is working to restore stream continuity along the Red River of the North. In the case of the Red River, dam removal is not occurring as much as dam remodeling is taking place. These small dams, often called ‘drowning machines’ due to the nature of their hydraulics (water movement), are typically less than 10 feet tall and many were built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They are referred to as ‘drowning machines’ because during high water flows people and animals that go over the dams can become trapped in a re-circulating current up against the base of the dam, often resulting in drowning. The work currently being done on the dams will result in a stream that fish can migrate through and it will eliminate the ‘drowning’ hydraulics.

Out in Washington State the Condit dam is being demolished to restore the  river and salmon habitat. Click here to see a video of the initial blasting – who knew so much sediment could be stored behind a dam. Pretty amazing footage! I had to watch it several times. This is one of two dams being removed on the White Salmon River, to restore migration of salmon back up into the headwaters areas. According to an AP report, modifying the dam would have cost $100 million, while removing it was only $32 million. Few dam removals have ever been done. Check out for more information on how it’s being done and for a look at some cool before  the dam pictures.

Dams are controversial. You don’t have far to look to hear of the environmental issues associated with dams, just nod your head north. More than half of Canada’s electricity comes from hydro dams, with 5 more on-line for completion in the next 10-15 years.  National Geographic highlights a documentary just out using Google earth to show the impacts that dams can have and more importantly, questioning the building of new dams in light of climate change. Click here. Dams are not built to respond to changing climate and extreme weather patterns.


Modifying Christine and Hickson Dams

Christine and Hickson dams are located south (upstream) of Fargo, ND on Red River of the North (Red River).  These dams represent significant migration barriers to many native fishes that depend on a connected Red River system to access habitats at a broad scale.  Restoring fish passage through Christine and Hickson dams will reconnect a large portion of the Red River system and provide significant short and long term benefits to stream fish communities in the Red River basin.

The mainstem of Red River offers summer and winter habitats for many fish species.  However, spawning habitat for species such as lake sturgeon, walleye, and sauger that require swift currents and coarse substrate materials is lacking in Red River.  Habitats for these species exist primarily in the farthest upstream segments of Red River and in tributary streams that pass through the remnant beach ridges associated with glacial Lake Agassiz.  Christine and Hickson dams restrict fish species from using Red River to migrate freely between the different the habitats that are needed seasonally and during various life stages.  Reconnecting these habitats is being accomplished by modifying the profile of the two low-head dams into rock-arch-rapids with a 5% slope, similar to what has been done successfully on many dams in the Red River basin and throughout the State of Minnesota.

Modification of the two dams will provide other benefits as well.  As is the case with many dams, life-threatening hydraulic rollers are located immediately downstream of Christine and Hickson dams.  Modification of these dams into rock-arch rapids will eliminate the hydraulic rollers and help provide a safe environment for river recreational activities.  There will also be significant reductions to maintenance costs associated with the dams.

The Christine and Hickson dams modification project is a cooperative effort with a total estimated cost of $1.7 million.  The Minnesota DNR and the City of Fargo are major funding and service contributors to the project.  Other project partners include: Regions 3 and 6 of the USFWS, North Dakota State Water Commission, Great Plains Fish Habitat Partnership, Buffalo-Red Watershed District (MN), Cass County Water District (ND), ND Game and Fish Department, River Keepers, and the City of Moorhead.

Project construction activities began early November, 2011.  Modification of Christine Dam is expected to be finished in late December, 2011 and completion of Hickson Dam is planned for mid-February, 2012.

Prehistoric fish in the Red River

Lake Sturgeon from the Rainy River, note the hose like mouth hanging below the eyes.

My first reaction to hooking a lake sturgeon several years back was to laugh and laugh some more. I was laughing in part because the thought that I had any control over the hidden creature on the other end of my line was ludicrous. Yeah, right, I was simply in a waiting game, hanging on to my fishing rod and letting this unseen monster swim where it would. I was no more going to ‘haul it in’ than I could stop a semi. I simply had to wait until it ran out of gas….20 minutes later. Even then, bringing something that is nearly five feet long out of the water and into a boat, is not an easy task. Sometime I’ll upload the video! Of the four sturgeon we caught that day, only one was within the slot length for keeping. We let them all go, back into the river. After ‘fighting’ one of these prehistoric lunkers for twenty minutes, it just didn’t seem right to take any more from it. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating fish – I was just so amazed by the ‘battle’ with this fish that the only way for me to end the encounter was by watching it swim away!

Lake sturgeon were once plentiful in the Red River, but were then wiped out. Dams cut them off from spawning areas in the adjoining tributaries, water pollution destroyed their habitat and over-harvest reduced their numbers even more. Did you know that sturgeon can live to be over 100 years old? Females don’t mature until they are around twenty years of age, so bringing back this population is not a quick fix! Thankfully, our water has been cleaned up, dams along the Red River are being modified, and sturgeon are being stocked in the Red and its tributaries in an effort to restore the population.  Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local watershed districts and North Dakota have all worked together to restore critical fish habitat connections along the Red.

Currently fishing is not allowed for sturgeon along any of the tributaries of the Red River. If you catch one, be sure to return it to the water – its an investment towards a future encounter that will make you laugh!

The Christine and Hickson Dams are undergoing modification this winter to reconnect sturgeon habitat on the Red (and all other species that move up and down the river). Follow along with these weekly pictures!

Additional Resources on Sturgeon: People of the Sturgeon is a new book out, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society. People of the Sturgeon is a history of the cultures surrounding lake sturgeon in Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago region, told by a fascinating collection of photos, artifacts, and a few good fish tales