Rapidan community campaigns to preserve aging dam

The future of the community’s beloved dam is still in murky waters

A close up view of a dam
The Rapidan Dam has been around for 112 years and has served as the backdrop for many visitors experiences with the Blue Earth River.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

The Rapidan Dam Store is known far and wide for its homemade pies. The store hasn’t changed much since Jim Hruska bought it in 1972. Staff still use the same malt mixers. They only take cash, not plastic. And they only use the payphone to answer calls.

Five people stand for a photo
(From left) Alayna Mann, Sophie Wyman, Jim Hruska, David Hruska and Jenny Barnes, stand for a portrait inside the Rapidan Dam Store.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

The store sits just yards from its namesake, the 85-foot-tall Rapidan Dam, now 112 years old. Jim’s children, David Hruska and Jenny Barnes, run the store and they plan to keep things exactly the same.

“Everyone loves the Dam Store,” David said. “Everyday, they tell us ‘don’t change a thing,’ and the dam goes with that. Why change something that is working? People love it and they don’t want to change its history.”

But change is coming. 

The Blue Earth County Board has been gathering public input for what could lead to the largest dam removal in state history.

The board will eventually choose between two options: either remove the dam over the span of a decade for $82 million or rehabilitate the structure over four years for $15 million. The latter option would add an undetermined number of years to the dam’s life. 

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The Rapidan Dam used to generate hydropower, but flood damage stopped that in 2019. David worries about his store’s fate if the dam is removed.

“Just imagine a construction zone around your business for 10 years,” he said. “It’s tough. It’ll be tough to survive. You’re gonna lose a lot of traffic from it. You’re gonna lose a lot of bicyclers, kayakers, canoers, and fishermen because they’re working down there.”

A person stands in a store toward the door
David Hruska, co-owner of the Rapidan Dam Store.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

A common challenge

Around Minnesota, communities are removing dams. Some have reached the end of their lifespan. Frequent flooding has badly damaged others. Some environmentalists argue the best thing to do is to return the rivers to their natural state — without dams.

DNR river ecologist Neil Haugerud said with more frequent river flooding caused by climate change, more communities are having those conversations.

“Most of these come to the point where they have to decide what to do,” Haugerud said. “There’s either a large repair that needs to be done, like in this case with the hydropower [dam], or they’ve had some sort of failure or near failure.”

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, there are more than 15,600 high-hazard dams nationwide, nearing or past their expected lifespans. About 40 dams fail across the country every year.

But dam removals can also cause complications. Property owners might be affected by changing water levels. Or, as in the case of the Rapidan Dam, decades of sediment build-up behind the dam needs to be carefully removed or risk flowing downstream all at once. 

Blue Earth County Public Works Director Ryan Thilges said the county has to take those things into account. 

“I know [the commissioners] want to be confident in their decision and know that they’re doing the right thing,” Thilges said. “They want to have as much information as they feel necessary for that decision.”

Backdrop to the community

A black and white photo of a dam
Hanging on the walls of the Rapidan Dam Store are pictures of the store's namesake, a 85-foot-tall hydropower dam that's only yards away from the building.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

For Rapidan’s 300 residents, the dam has provided a backdrop for events and memories for over a century, including for Bent River Outfitter owner Dain Fisher. As a youngster he used to hang out at the Dam Store. Now he takes visitors out to paddle the water. He said removing the dam could increase recreational tourism in Blue Earth County, but understands why others might not want it gone.

“I think it opens up a plethora of opportunity,” Fisher said. “And, I’m always a half-glass full kind of guy and optimist.”

A person poses for a photo with canoes behind them
Dain Fisher, owner of Bent River Outfitter in Mankato, lives in Rapidan. He's taken thousands of recreational tourists down the Blue Earth River.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Still, there are many who want to hang onto the past. Local historian Jane Haala, a 50-year Rapidan resident, sees how much the town’s changed within recent years.

“We lost the school, that was hard on Rapidan,” Haala said. “Now, we lost one of the churches. The dam is kind of just a small sign, you might say, to what’s happening in the bigger scope of things.”

The residents don’t deny the dam needs attention, but Haala questions if it needs to be removed now. 

“This is maybe something that we can say, ‘no, we want it,’' she said. “We want to preserve it as long as we can. … It’s something that we have some control over. Our input can have some control over it.”

Outside, yards away, the Blue Earth River flows through the dam. In the distance, kayakers paddle and a lone angler flicks a line. A family with young children relax on the shore. 

A person stands and poses for a photo
Jenny Barnes, co-owner of the Rapidan Dam Store, poses for a portrait on top of the Rapidan Dam.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

After her shift at the store, co-owner Jenny Barnes takes a walk on the bridge over the dam, and takes in the river’s beauty. Barnes believes that not enough research is being done on the dam removal. She said she can’t imagine losing what’s here. 

“They take it out and it affects us,” Barnes said. “We live here. It will affect us greatly, no matter what.”