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Drought lowers water levels at Thomson Reservoir, affecting area business

The low levels of water in the St. Louis River and in the Thomson Reservoir will require “many, many inches of rain before we see it get back to normal,” Jay Cooke State Park naturalist Kris Hiller said.

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Cindy and Charles Clyde, both of Cloquet, sit on the end of a dock at the University of Minnesota St. Louis River Outpost/National Kayak and Canoe Center on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021 in Carlton. The Thomson Reservoir in Jay Cooke State Park has been experiencing very low water levels due to the ongoing drought. If the reservoir was at normal levels, Cindy's and Charles' feet would be touching the surface of the water. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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CARLTON, Minn. — Charles and Cindy Clyde spent the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 1, as they’ve spent many before: Exploring the shore of the Thomson Reservoir in Carlton, Minnesota.

The Cloquet residents enjoy walking and fishing at the reservoir, but because of the drought, water levels are several feet below their normal level. The pier the Clydes normally cast from was more than 10 feet from the shore Sunday.

Still, Charles said the levels have actually risen at the Thomson Reservoir over the past few weeks.

“A month or so ago, it was much lower,” he said. “We could literally almost walk to the island — we could see all of the fishing lures people have lost over the years.”

The Thomson Reservoir isn’t very deep, which makes changes during a drought particularly striking, according to Kris Hiller, a naturalist at Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton County.

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“Typically we tell people when it’s full, it’s roughly 15 feet deep at its deepest,” she said. “So it’s not a terribly deep body of water, either, and when you don’t have rain like this for a while, it quickly becomes noticeable that everything’s getting exposed.”

Swiftwater Adventures, a whitewater rafting company that operates on the St. Louis River, will likely shut down its season soon because of low water levels.

“Unless we get rain soon, we’re probably going to be done rafting in a couple weeks,” Swiftwater owner Cliff Langley said. “That part stinks. Most years, we go into September, maybe October depending on water levels and weather.”

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Guides from Swiftwater Adventures have to lead a raft to a set of rapids due to the low water levels on the St. Louis River on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Carlton. The Thomson Reservoir in Jay Cooke State Park has been experiencing very low water levels due to the ongoing drought making it difficult for Minnesota Power to maintain a higher rate of flow in the river. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Luke Aker, a guide and co-owner at Swiftwater, told rafters before heading out on the river Sunday that the low water levels were forcing guides to stand in the river to help boats through some of the rapids.

“It’s not like in May or June, where there’s four to six crashing waves or bigger. It’s more low water, it’s more technical. Some people, they don’t quite understand the way watersheds work and they still expect high water in August, even though most places to go rafting in the United States have low water in August," he said.

The drought is also creating more work and less profitability for Swiftwater, according to Langley. With lower water levels, guides put fewer people in each raft to keep them moving better in the water and have more guides on each tour.

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Hiller said the water flowing through the Thomson Dam has increased a little after rain events in the past couple weeks, but it is still far lower than normal. Water was flowing through the dam at 247 cubic feet per second (CFS) Friday, July 30, Hiller said. That amount is up from a low of about 150 CFS a few weeks ago.

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High water marks are visible along rock formations at the Thomson Reservoir on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Carlton. The Thomson Reservoir in Jay Cooke State Park has been experiencing very low water levels due to the ongoing drought. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The lowest recorded flow through the dam since it was first constructed in 1905 was in 1990 when just 20 CFS was flowing through, but that was before a licensing agreement between Minnesota Power — which operates a hydroelectric plant at the reservoir — and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The standard set by the agreement asks Minnesota Power to keep 350 CFS flowing through the dam during the summer.

“Obviously we’re in a drought and they’re not held to that — they’re not breaking any rules or anything,” Hiller said.

The highest amount to flow through the Thomson Dam Hiller has seen was during the 2012 flood when the flow reached 55,000 CFS, she said.

Amy Rutledge, a communications manager at Minnesota Power, said in an email that the water level on the St. Louis River is so low that the energy company isn’t “really able to generate power due to the drought.” Other Minnesota Power hydropower plants on the Mississippi River are generating “minimal energy,” but the company continues to meet customers’ energy needs through wind, solar and thermal operations, as well hydro power from Manitoba Hydro, according to Rutledge.

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A small amount of water is expelled from one of the gates at the Thomson Dam on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Carlton. The Thomson Reservoir in Jay Cooke State Park has been experiencing very low water levels due to the ongoing drought making it difficult for Minnesota Power to maintain a higher rate of flow in the St. Louis River. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Minnesota Power typically tries to work with rafting companies to keep water flowing through the canyon they travel down.

“Usually, they’re releasing little shots of water during the times (the rafting companies are) taking people out,” Hiller said. “They’re not even able to do that right now.”

Even though water levels have come up a touch, Hiller said a lot of rain is still needed to end the drought and bring water levels up.

“We need many, many inches of rain before we see it get back to normal,” she said.

Related Topics: CARLTONSCANLONDROUGHT
Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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