Long before the city of Fergus Falls took root in southwestern Otter Tail County the Otter Tail River was a travel route for trappers and traders.
According to the history books the Ojibwa called it Nigigwaanowe-ziibi while the early French explorers referred it “Lac de la Queue de la Outer” or “Tail Lake of the Otter.”
Whatever the 192-mile-long river has been called it has been an important artery of life and a source of prosperity. One of the companies that has cashed in on the waters of the Otter Tail River has been Otter Tail Power Company.
Over a 16-year period of time between 1909 and 1925 Otter Tail Power Company built five dams on the Otter Tail River. Their Hoot Lake dam was built in 1914 and in the 1950s a coal-fired power plant was constructed near the dam. The electrical power generated by the river has served thousands of customers. The Hoot Lake Plant is operated in the winter now to supply building heat.
Heat from the Hoot Lake facility has been responsible for keeping portions of the river open in even the coldest months of the year.
But after 2021 the Otter Tail River will be wearing a colder expression in the winter months.
Like many other companies, Otter Tail Power has bowed to changes in the energy industry and in 2021 it will be closing the Hoot Lake plant. Replacing it will be a 245-megawatt natural gas combustion turbine at Astoria Station, a facility southeast of Watertown, South Dakota.
However Otter Tail Power continues to serve its customers, the Otter Tail River will be seeing some changes and residents of Fergus Falls will have a front row seat.
“Largely there will be more ice,” said Bill Swanson, Otter Tail Power’s manager of supply, engineering and operations.
Swanson is not trying to be trite when he points out the obvious fact. Flowing water tends to stay open depending upon the strength of the current.
“It’s hard to say if the river will completely freeze over because it is dependent on ambient temperatures, river flows and whether or not a certain section of the river is narrow, therefore faster flowing, or wide and still, where it would easier form ice,” Swanson said.
Stretches of the Otter Tail River as it meanders through the heart of downtown Fergus Falls - such as the levee near the River Bend Apartment complex at Friberg and Summit avenues, will almost certainly freeze over but other spots, where the river bends, could stay open.
The coal-fired plant at Hoot Lake has long been supplied by the Otter Tail Valley Railroad. How will the short line fare after the power plant is shut down?
What Swanson knows is that the amount of coal the railroad brings to the Hoot Lake plant has been tailing off. At the present time, the OTVR is bringing about one trainload of coal a month to the plant. The short line is well aware of the plant’s closing so moving more ethanol and grain will be more important.
Area fisheries manager Jim Wolters of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sees a colder Otter Tail River moving warm water-oriented species out of portions of the river they have inhabited.
Wolters is aware that one warm water-loving species that has gathered below Hoot Lake is the smallmouth bass - a great fighting fish.
“I don’t anticipate any negative impacts,” Wolters said. “They will go downstream or upstream and winter in the deeper pools.”
In addition to smallies, Wolters said the stretch of the Otter Tail River flowing through Fergus Falls holds walleye, largemouth bass, northern pike, suckers, darters, shiners and chubs.