HUDSON — All that’s missing is a lake.

Beyond that, most of the years-long Little Falls Lake dam project at Willow River State Park is complete. The dam is finished and has been operating since January.

“A lot of people are excited to see the lake return,” Willow River State Park Manager Aaron Mason said.

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Pending the go-ahead from state engineers, Little Falls Lake should begin being filled by April. Mason said the goal is to have the lake completely filled no later than May 15.

The $20 million project will also see replacement of the state park’s road leading to the dam and a repaved parking lot near the dam — surfaces that were both affected by construction vehicles. A “plaza” surface leading to the dam, which will be open to the public, must also be poured and a portage route around the dam will be created, Mason said.

Meanwhile, fish cribs and boulders stand ready to foster fish habitat once the lake is filled. Mason said the cribs were placed intentionally, including some near a planned fishing spot on the upriver side of the dam. Panfish will be stocked in the spring, while walleye and bass will be introduced in the fall.

Fish cribs are visible on what will be the lake bottom once Little Falls Lake is filled in the spring. The cribs will provide a habitat for fish, especially panfish. Boulders will offer habitat for larger fish, according to Willow River State Park Manager Aaron Mason. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia
Fish cribs are visible on what will be the lake bottom once Little Falls Lake is filled in the spring. The cribs will provide a habitat for fish, especially panfish. Boulders will offer habitat for larger fish, according to Willow River State Park Manager Aaron Mason. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

Mason said the cribs will “hopefully make the fishing rebound even faster.”

The dam project was backed up due to a March 2019 flood that washed out a temporary dam at the construction site. Mason said the flood, along with other weather factors throughout the historically wet 2019, delayed completion by about 10 weeks.

Still, Mason said the project was completed under budget, with remaining funds diverted to another Department of Natural Resources project.

The dam is similar in many ways to its predecessor, which was removed amid concerns it could fail in the face of intense flooding, though Mason said some aspects are new.

The new dam’s gates will open from above, rather than lifting from below, as the old structure did. Mason said that since water will spill over the top of the gates, it should pass along less sediment than the old dam’s system, which would draw from the lake bottom when those gates opened.

The Willow River, shown upriver of the new Little Falls Lake dam, will be filled this spring to restore Little Falls Lake. The lake was drained in 2015 before the old structure was removed. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia
The Willow River, shown upriver of the new Little Falls Lake dam, will be filled this spring to restore Little Falls Lake. The lake was drained in 2015 before the old structure was removed. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

Mason noted that water can be released through the bottom of the dam’s tower, which he said will be used to pass colder water downstream during summer months to improve that area’s trout habitat.

A tentative grand opening event is planned for June.