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County approves Phelps Dam fishway

Phelps Mill Dam is one step closer to being modified for simplified fish passage.

The concept was approved unanimously by the Otter Tail County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 25.

Phelps Mill Dam is listed as a National Historic Site, owned by Otter Tail County. The fish passage project, which has been led by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, still needs approval from state historic preservation oversight.

If approved, this would be a three-year project. This year would include planning and funding. Year two, in 2015, would include construction. Year three would include monitoring and adjustment work.

The project’s cost is estimated to be $300,000. Funding would likely come from fisheries habitat improvement and state bonding funds, along with money from the Lessarde-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Changes would be made on the west side of the dam with a series of rock-step rapids. An abutment near the dam would also need modification to allow fish to pass.

The DNR is engaged in a lake sturgeon restoration program in the watersheds of the Otter Tail and Red Rivers, said county engineer Rick West.

Lake sturgeon have been stocked in Otter Tail Lake, upstream from the dam, since 2002 in an effort to reestablish a naturally sustained population.

In 2012, several lake sturgeon were caught in Hoot Lake, downstream from Phelps Mill Dam. This has demonstrated short-term success from stocking efforts. However, in order for these fish to become established for the long-term, they need stretches of rivers for spawning and migration.

That’s where the Phelps Mill Dam project enters the picture. The dam is a barrier on the river, and the project would reconnect approximately 20 miles of waterway.

Other fish that would use the fishway for spawning and migration include walleye, bass, northern pike and other non-game species.