What happened to Minnesota's Rapidan Dam? Here's what to know about its flooding and partial failure

Dams are often built to last 50 years, and like other infrastructure, they deteriorate with age.
A home teeters on the brink of collapsing into the Blue Earth River on Monday, June 24, 2024, near the Rapidan Dam in Mankato, Minn.
A home teeters on the brink of collapsing into the Blue Earth River on Monday, June 24, 2024, near the Rapidan Dam in Mankato, Minn.Photo | AP

MINNEAPOLIS: The visuals were stunning! Water from the Blue Earth River surged around a southern Minnesota dam, carrying a shipping container with it as it toppled utility poles, wrecked a substation and washed away part of a riverbank. A home teetered on the edge of an eroded slope as floodwaters rushed underneath.

Earlier this week, authorities said the Rapidan Dam near Mankato faced an “imminent threat” of collapse, but later they said an abutment had partially failed. The river swelled after an onslaught of rain pummeled the Midwest for days. More than 3 million people live in areas impacted by flooding, from Iowa to Nebraska to Minnesota to South Dakota.

On Tuesday, the dam was still intact and there were no mass evacuations. Authorities said the partial failure of the abutment was caused by the recent bout of heavy rain, but a past assessment of the dam revealed it was already at risk. Here are some things to know.

What happened?

Early Monday morning, emergency management workers gave notice that water was surging over the dam. As water flows peaked, debris plugged parts of the structure and the west abutment of the dam partially failed. The conditions around the dam spun a current that was too vicious for workers to cross safely in order to clear the detritus.

The rush of water destroyed a power station and caused outages for about 600 households, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said. Water levels peaked Monday at 34,800 cubic feet per second, and Blue Earth County officials issued an imminent threat warning. Those figures make this flood the second largest in the dam’s history.

The levels had begun to lower by Tuesday, county officials said.

Water continued flowing around and eroding the west side of the dam Tuesday, officials said. But as overall water levels decreased, they said the prospect of a total collapse was unlikely. Still, it remained possible. Blue Earth County has not issued any mass evacuation orders, but a nearby bridge and a campground downstream of the river was closed. Late Tuesday, county officials said the house that was at risk along the river's edge had partially fallen into the river. Officials were monitoring for any impacts downstream.

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission were on site Tuesday evaluating the damage to the dam and ongoing risks.

Was the dam already in disrepair?

Construction of the Rapidan dam was finished in 1910 and is described by the county as a hollow concrete dam, founded on sandstone bedrock in a steep, U-shaped valley. The dam is approximately 475 feet (145 meters) long, and 87 feet (27 meters) high.

A 2019 Associated Press investigation into dams across the country found that the Rapidan Dam was in fair condition and there likely would be loss of property if it failed. But that same year, the dam experienced what was one of its highest floods on record. Severe weather from that flood and other rainfall since have caused significant damage to the dam’s structure and usability, according to Blue Earth County, which said the dam was in a “state of disrepair.”

After the 2019 flood, ice jams formed in a narrow bend of the river downstream of the dam from January through March 2020. These jams continued to build and caused water to rise and flood, a 2021 study found. The buildup caused further damage, and an April 2023 assessment conducted by the National Inventory of Dams found Rapidan to be in poor condition.

Officials have not said whether the issues identified in past assessments led to the partial failure.

“The structural integrity of the dam has been in question for a long time,” Walz said. “The removal of the dam has been a question that’s been up there.”

What are the dangers to surrounding areas?

Areas downstream of the dam have no permanent inhabited structures, lessening the risk of fatalities and property damage, county officials said. But officials closed a park downstream of the dam that attracts hikers and fishermen.

The reservoir upstream of the dam provides power generation storage and recreation. But it is full of sediment, making boat access difficult, the county said. Because the reservoir is full, sediment is now pushed downstream of the dam.

Blue Earth County Public Works Director Ryan Thilges said there is more than a century's worth of sediment upstream of the dam. Severe environmental damage could occur if that sediment broke loose and seeped into the river, he said.

How often do aging dams need repairs?

American Rivers, a conservation group that monitors dam safety issues and advocates for more federal and state resources for dam inspections, repair and removal, saw the Rapidan Dam as an example of how aging dams across the U.S. need far more attention than they’re getting.

Dams are often built to last 50 years, and like other infrastructure, they deteriorate with age.

“This is a serious risk for public safety that should have been avoided. Aging, unsafe dams are ticking time bombs,” Graber said. “While the immediate focus must be on ensuring nearby residents are safe, we must do a better job at the state and federal level to improve the safety of dams nationwide.”

A home teeters on the brink of collapsing into the Blue Earth River on Monday, June 24, 2024, near the Rapidan Dam in Mankato, Minn.
Sweltering temperatures persist across the US, while floodwaters inundate the Midwest

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