Rebuilding Little Falls Dam seen as economic boon

Posted in: Energy, Water


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Governor Walker was joined by Sen. Sheila Harsdorf and Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, lawmakers from River Falls, Wisconsin. (click on image to view video)

It’s pretty exciting to redesign a dam, bring back a beautiful lake and help rejuvenate tourism at one of Wisconsin’s most attractive parks. Mead & Hunt will be doing just that at Willow River State Park.

Last week, Governor Walker announced an additional $11 million in funding for the reconstruction of the Little Falls Dam. This is on top of the $8 million already budgeted for the project. Walker couched the announcement as a tourism driver, saying improvements will lure more visitors to the park, which already sees about 930,000 each year.

The Willow River State park includes a class 2 trout stream, sandy beach, prairie remnants and a nature center contained within 2,891 acres of rolling countryside. It boasts spectacular views of the historic Willow Falls and the Willow River Gorge. The park website reads:

“With 2,891 acres of prairie, forests, and panoramic river scenery, Willow River State Park offers year-round recreational and scenic attractions … the park has a campground, a boat launch, and a 400-foot beach and picnic area centered on 172-acre Little Falls Lake.”

But the lake hasn’t been there since October 2015. It was drained in a controlled dam breach.

Little Falls Dam looking west
Little Falls Dam looking west

The multiple-arch buttress portion of the dam was built in 1934 to replace a failed earth embankment dam. Other portions of the dam date back to the 1920s and earlier. So while it had a good run, it was no longer safe.

In September 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources began draining Little Falls Lake after dam inspections raised serious questions about the dam’s structural integrity. In addition it was found that the dam was not in compliance with state laws regulating high hazard dams.

The good news is by the following year the Wisconsin DNR decided to replace the dam at Willow River State Park. And, now with the funding in place, the Mead & Hunt team is excited to get going.


Carson Mettel, PE

About the Author

Carson Mettel, PE, the current Vice-Chair of the National Hydropower Association’s Small Hydro Council, is Mead & Hunt’s Water Resources Department Manager. He has 30+ years of experience working with water resources, dams and hydro power projects. In his hours away from work, Carson is a pie connoisseur and enjoys biking, two interests that definitely balance each other out.

Read more posts by Carson Mettel, PE

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