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For the first time in more than 30 years, St. Cloud shuts down its hydroelectric dam due to drought conditions

The dam generates enough electricity for 6,500 homes.

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The worsening drought is really impacting water levels across the state, including the Mississippi River. The flow is so low the hydroelectric dam in St. Cloud had to completely shut down this week.

It's the first time that's happened since 1988, which is one of the worst drought years in recent memory.

"We're no longer making electricity and as a state as a whole, that's a problem," says Public Utilities Director Lisa Vollbrecht.

The dam generates enough electricity to power 6,500 homes a year, but the Mississippi River is so low that its flow is nearly nonexistent.

"Flow has to be enough to keep that engine, that turbine, running and that generator is going to produce power," said Public Services Director Tracy Hodel.

Not enough water can also damage the two turbines -- an expensive fix the city is trying to avoid. That's on top of now having to turn to other, more costly power sources like coal and natural gas.

"We do sell this electricity to the grid so as a community for St. Cloud, we are losing revenue by having this facility offline," said Hodel.

The cost increases will eventually be passed down to customers. Plus, no one knows how long the plant will be down. If weather patterns are similar to 1988, it could be a month or more.

Like a lot of people, Holand is left hoping for a lot more rain.

"Typically we'll see some flows go up with a half-inch to an inch of rain, so we'll see a bump, but it's not a huge bump," said Holand. "You get all excited for one or two days and then flows just start sinking again."

The concern carries into winter when Vollbrecht says lower river levels can freeze. This can create ice dams that the water won't be powerful enough to push over, putting the dam in jeopardy again. 

"This is the mighty Mississippi and it just doesn't feel mighty right now and that makes me nervous," said Vollbrecht.

This isn't just happening in St. Cloud. Minnesota Power is a company that owns 38 facilities across the upper Midwest similar to the one in St. Cloud. 

All of them, except for one in Little Falls, are shut down for the same reasons. 

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