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Dam Failure

Large dam on riverDams are artificial barriers placed on bodies of water that hold back the flow of water. They have many purposes: hydroelectric power generation, safe river navigation, agricultural irrigation, creating recreation areas, municipal water supplies, and flood reduction.

When dams fail due to structural problems or major flood events, the energy of the stored water is released and can cause damage to areas downstream. Dam failures can result in loss of life, property and environmental damage, and have economic repercussions.

Dam owners, whether private or public agencies, are required to immediately report unsafe dam conditions to the state. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is responsible for inspecting all dams on a regular basis, reporting their findings to administrators of the National Dam Safety Program. Dam personnel are also required to conduct regular dam safety drills and exercises with public safety officials.

Eight dams are located in or just upstream of Stearns County (see list below). Dams are rated according to the potential hazard a dam failure would pose to human life, property and the environment. High hazard dams are inspected annually; lower hazard dams are inspected less frequently.

Dam Hazard Classifications

 Classification Hazard Potential
Class I -
High Hazard  
Dams located where failure will likely cause loss of life or serious damage to homes, industrial and commercial facilities, important public utilities, main highways or railroads.
Class II -
Significant Hazard  
Dams located where failure will not likely cause loss of life but may damage homes, industrial and commercial facilities, secondary highways or railroads or cause service interruptions of important public utilities.
Class III -
Low Hazard  
Dams located where failure would cause minimal property damage. Loss of life is not expected.

Dams in Stearns County and surrounds

 Dam Location    Height    Downstream Hazard Potential
 Cold Spring, Sauk River    14 feet    Low
 Rockville, Mill Creek    13 feet    Significant
 Melrose, Sauk River    20 feet    Significant
 Sauk Centre, Sauk River    22 feet    Significant
 Little Falls, Mississippi River (Morrison County)    24 feet    Significant
 Blanchard Dam, Mississippi River (Morrison County)    46 feet    Significant
 St. Cloud, Mississippi River    23.3 feet    High
 Champion/St. Regis Dam, Sartell, Mississippi River    46 feet    High

Stearns County has been affected by a dam failure in recent history. During reconstruction of the City of St. Cloud dam in 1970, a cofferdam was built upstream from the construction site to hold back Mississippi River waters. Due to a structural inadequacy, the cofferdam washed out on October 31, 1970. The energy of the impounded water caused extensive damage to the construction site and downstream areas. Rigorous inspection policies and emergency protocols are in place today to prevent such disasters.


If your home or business could be affected by a dam failure:

  1. Learn several safe routes to high ground. 
  2. Class I and II dams are required to have emergency action plans on file with county emergency management departments and at the dam operator's office, and are available for public review.


If you are notified of a dam failure via the Emergency Broadcasting System or by public safety personnel, move immediately and quickly to high ground. Do not stop to gather possessions.


  1. Do not enter flooded or threatened areas until permitted by public safety personnel.
  2. Check the exterior of the building for structural damage before you enter. Open the doors and windows and let air out - this will release odors or gas that may have built up.
  3. Use only a battery-powered flashlight when you enter the building in case of a gas buildup. Make sure all the utilities are turned off, and call an electrician to check your electrical system. Report any downed or damaged utility lines.
  4. Do not eat any fresh food that has come in contact with flood water. Do not drink water from your tap until it is tested and, if applicable, the well has been pumped.
  5. To start drying out the building, open all windows and doors and start removing mud while it is still wet.

For More Information:

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources - Dam Safety Program

National Dam Safety Program

National Performance of Dams Program, Stanford University
Searchable directory of U.S. dams