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Dokken: Big things are happening on the Red River and two key tributaries

Replacing the Drayton Dam with an arched-rock rapids structure will benefit fish movement and human safety.

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A heavy equipment operator works on the initial breach of the Drayton Dam on the Red River near Drayton, North Dakota, on Wednesday, March 1, 2023.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald
Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS – Big things are happening this year on the Red River and elsewhere in the Red River Basin.

The biggest – and one of the biggest in quite some time, truth be told – got underway Wednesday, when contractors from Park Construction in Minneapolis began breaching the Drayton Dam on the Red River in Drayton, N.D.

Park Construction is a partner in HSG Park Joint Venture LLC, which was awarded the contract for the $7.7 million project.

Project partners include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality and various other state and local entities.

Breaching the dam marks a key step in removing the Drayton Dam and replacing it with a new dam about 100 feet upstream that will feature an “arched rock rapids” structure that accommodates fish passage and is safer to humans.


Durham, 46, of Park Rapids, Minnesota, just wrapped up his 22nd year as a kindergarten teacher in his hometown of Nevis, Minnesota. This is his 32nd year of guiding.

The Drayton Dam is the last of eight low-head dams on the U.S. portion of the Red River to be replaced with rock-rapids structures that retain their water-holding capacity, while still offering the safety and fish passage benefits.

Low-head dams are widely referred to as “drowning machines” for the dangerous roller currents they produce. Since its construction in 1964, at least 10 people have drowned below the Drayton Dam, according to Herald archives; other unofficial counts put the number at more than twice that many.

The Drayton Dam project is a major development in efforts to “Reconnect the Red” that have been underway for nearly three decades. You’ll find a full story about Wednesday’s dam-breaching effort and what’s ahead for the new dam project in Saturday’s print and online editions of the Grand Forks Herald.

Telemetry project on tap

Getting rid of the low-head dams on the Red River and several tributaries also is a key component in restoring lake sturgeon to the Red River Basin, an effort that is well underway.

Last spring, for example, spawning sturgeon were documented in the Otter Tail River for the first time in more than 100 years, a success story directly tied to “Reconnect the Red” efforts underway throughout the basin.

This spring, the Minnesota DNR plans to implant transmitters in 43 lake sturgeon in the Red Lake and Otter Tail rivers, along with a smaller number of freshwater drum and bigmouth buffalo, as part of an ongoing telemetry project to expand its knowledge base about the fish and where they move.

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Nick Kludt, DNR Red River fisheries specialist.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

The transmitters, which are surgically implanted, will communicate with acoustic receivers, or “listening stations,” that will be installed in the two rivers, said Nick Kludt, Red River fisheries specialist for the DNR in Detroit Lakes, Minn.

Five acoustic receivers will be placed in the Red Lake River, Kludt said, extending from below the power dam in Thief River Falls downstream to the mouth of the river in East Grand Forks. In the Otter Tail River, five receivers will be placed from below Orwell Dam downstream to the mouth of the river at Breckenridge, Minn.


The 10 new listening stations, which pick up and record the unique signal of any marked fish that swims by them, will augment 251 receivers anchored along the Red River, Kludt said.

The transmitters cost about $250 each, and the receivers cost about $2,500, Kludt said. The Minnesota DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Manitoba Natural Resources and Northern Development all have contributed funding to the telemetry work. A graduate student from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln will monitor fish marked as part of the telemetry project, Kludt says.

The opportunity to learn more about fish movement in the Red Lake River is especially exciting, Kludt says.

“The Red Lake River to date has been kind of a data gap for us,” he said. “We don’t know a lot about what goes on there. We know that people are catching sturgeon and reporting sturgeon from below the power dam, but we don’t know movement, habitat – there’s just a lot of gaps – and it’s time we get a handle on those because that’s a really important part of this whole recovery effort, with the potential spawning habitat in the Red Lake system, as well as looking at the efficacy of various connectivity projects.”

In one of the most extreme examples of fish movement to date, a lake sturgeon marked in 2019 below the Orwell Dam on the Otter Tail River now resides in Lake Winnipeg, Kludt says.

“It swam (downstream) to the Grand Forks area, and we thought it was going to overwinter around the confluence of the Red Lake River,” he said. “But then, it decided to continue north and it went into Lake Winnipeg, and in short order, it found the lake sturgeon aggregations in Lake Winnipeg at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, and that’s where it’s currently hanging out.”

The telemetry study has been “an absolute ecological and fish management gold mine,” Kludt says, and the upcoming work on the Red Lake and Otter Tail rivers stands to offer more of the same.

Stay tuned.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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