Elkader Council approves proposal to fix Turkey River dam

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The Elkader City Council has approved a proposal from Mobile Track Solutions to replace a broken gate on the Turkey River dam. The gate, which is one of three (the other two were replaced with concrete in the 1990s and are still structurally sound), was damaged during flooding. (Photo by Willis Patenaude)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

“A big dam project!”

That’s how Parker Klingman’s presentation began at the most recent Elkader City Council meeting regarding how to fix the broken dam above the Keystone Bridge. 

The dam has a storied history, having been built by one of the town’s founders, and should be a source of pride and a scenic highlight for the community. But, currently, it stands in a sort of shabby disrepute. 

“I wish they would fix it. That is one of the many attractions that brings people to Elkader. Used to see people on the bridge watching the water go over the dam, but not anymore,” DC Boassard of Farmersburg said in one of many Facebook conversations about the topic. 

The current problem is one of the three gates is broken—suffering this fate during flooding last year. The remaining two gates were replaced with concrete in the 1990s, which created additional problems, such as needing a crane to lift them out when flooding started, so opening the flood gates became impractical, according to city administrator Jennifer Cowsert. 

To function properly and practically, the third gate, which is said to be sitting near a horse barn, would need to be fabricated out of something other than concrete. When the company that did the work in the 1990s was busy, Elkader’s Mobile Track Solutions (MTS) entered the picture.

MTS proposes replacing the broken gate with reinforced steel, making opening and closing simpler and easier. A new gate will also allow the water, which is currently running through the gaping hole created by the missing gate, to once again flow over the dam, creating a scenic tourist attraction rather than a logjam of tree branches. 

Former Elkader resident Shawn Peterman commented on Facebook, “I wish they would get it fixed. It looks terrible.” 

City council members had questions. Ed Josten wanted to know if ice would be a factor. MTS employee Justin Augustyn said that, while it would, he reassured the council that steel has flexibility, whereas concrete does not, and MTS uses a 5 to 1 safety factor. The new gate would stand up to 24,000 pounds of force. 

As for the problem of trees stopping and resting at the top of the dam, when the dam is fully operational, those trees would be expected to float and go over the dam. 

Council member Peggy Lane wondered about putting a new, stable structure into an existing, unstable structure. The question acknowledged the existing two gates and how they would hold up. According to Klingman, the dam is structurally sound, and the two gates have about 50 years of life left and have not seen a lot of deterioration. 

But some people don’t want the dam repaired. According to Cowsert, while most residents “want to see the water go over the dam again,” some would prefer the gates taken out completely, then creating a canoe or fish ladder. In their view, this is an opportunity to do something different. 

Julie Carlisle-Kane on Facebook said, “I kind of like the look it has now. But if I were the city, I’d let nature take its course.” 

City council members were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea, and mayor Josh Pope went so far as to say, “Let’s get it done!”

However, getting it done comes with a timeline and costs. MTS assured they could fabricate the gate in three weeks and install it in three days. The cost to the city would be nothing because MTS intends to donate its time and knowledge, as well as the materials to complete the repair. 

Because MTS plans to donate all the time and materials—and even though the company stands behind the integrity of its work—MTS still wanted a liability waiver. That was granted by the city council and the project was approved unanimously. 

The impetus behind the project for MTS is to improve the dam and the surrounding landscape by removing an eyesore, improving the visuals and providing a source of community pride. 

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