The tussle over ownership of the Coon Rapids dam took an abrupt turn last week when Three Rivers Park District yanked a long-standing lease to Anoka County for parkland on the Anoka side of the dam.

Park board members abruptly terminated the lease after learning from their State Capitol lobbyists that Anoka County was using its standing in the lease to stymie park district efforts to transfer the dam to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The park district, which owns the dam, wants the DNR to take it over and operate it as a barrier to invasive fish. Anoka County has residents who enjoy a recreational pool that forms upstream from the dam. The county is all for making the dam a fish barrier but has concerns about losing Three Rivers' stewardship.

Ownership of the dam across the Mississippi River is at issue because the aging structure requires costly ongoing repairs and because the DNR is urging that the state spend $17 million to upgrade it as a key barrier to preventing invasive Asian carp from migrating upriver to infest Minnesota's northern lakes.

"Our goal is to set the record straight," said Larry Blackstad, Three Rivers Park District chairman. "I want to get rid of the contention that they [Anoka County] have some right over the ownership of the dam."

Nothing stands in the way of transferring the dam to the DNR, Blackstad said.

NSP gift becomes rift

The aging dam, which spans the river between Hennepin and Anoka County, once generated electricity but is used now to back up the river into a 6-mile pool for boating and fishing.

The dam came to the park district in 1969 as part of a gift from Northern States Power of 225 acres of parkland along the Mississippi. Most of the land -- 214 acres -- is in Anoka County.

Starting in 1994, Three Rivers, which is based in Hennepin County, leased the land to Anoka County for $75,000 a year. Termination of the lease gives Anoka a year to pay the $673,000 remaining balance and complete the purchase.

Anoka County "undoubtedly" will borrow money and buy the land, said Anoka County Commissioner Jim Kordiak, chairman of the county park and recreation committee.

"I don't know that we really care if they made this termination," Kordiak said. "I don't think we are concerned about it."

The incident marks a growing rift between the suburban Hennepin County-supported park district and Anoka County over who should own and operate the dam.

Three Rivers 'good stewards'

The park district has sought to divest itself of the dam since the 1990s. It contends that suburban Hennepin County taxpayers who pay for Three Rivers parks should not be on the hook to operate and maintain a dam that provides them no benefit.

Three Rivers began pushing for a state takeover last year, when the DNR announced that the dam has potential to serve as a barrier to the northward migration of Asian carp and other unwanted invasive fish. The park district hopes legislators will spend $17 million to upgrade the dam as a fish barrier and in that process make the DNR the owner.

Anoka County supports the fish barrier because it places high value on the recreation options provided by the dam pool. Upgrading the dam could keep the pool in place for 50 years. But Anoka County has not joined the park district in seeking DNR ownership of the dam.

Kordiak said he understands why Three Rivers wants out, but many residents and officials from cities along the recreation pool are content to see Three Rivers keep the dam.

"We know what good stewards they have been over the years and we don't know what the DNR would do with it," Kordiak said.

Anoka County parks director John Von De Linde said, "We are certainly not working against Three Rivers."

Talk more or done discussing?

The county would like more discussion among affected cities and agencies about who should own and operate the dam, Von De Linde said.

Three Rivers says it's not interested in more discussion. If legislators allocate funds to turn the dam into a critical fish barrier, it says, the dam should be owned and operated by the DNR's fisheries division.

The DNR, which operates other dams, has said repeatedly that it does not want the Coon Rapids dam.

In a recent letter to Three Rivers, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the DNR would support "having the state provide all capital improvement costs for dam refurbishment, provided that the dam can be operated to its maximum effectiveness as an Asian carp barrier."

Whether legislators will allocate money to bolster the dam to block fish is one of many unsettled issues in St. Paul as the legislative session winds down. A bonding bill proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton includes $16 million for the dam upgrade, but it's unclear whether legislators will pass a bonding bill this year.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711