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By Stephen Lee, Published September 30 2009

Lowering reservoir part of search for Gina Anderson, missing Thief River Falls woman

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. - Investigators searching for a Thief River Falls woman missing nearly a year hope that lowering the river reservoir in town might uncover some evidence.

Gina Anderson hasn’t been seen or heard of since several people saw her drive away from her home in Thief River Falls in her bright yellow Pontiac Sunfire Oct. 23.

Neither she nor the car has been found, despite extensive searches of the two rivers in town as well as surrounding areas.

Ben Kuznia, investigator with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office in Thief River Falls, got an idea: ask the city utilities director to let more water over the dam.

“We are going to start lowering the water level Oct. 12,” Kuznia told the Herald on Tues-day. “It will take about two days, in a slow draw-down. It should drop it 5 to 6 feet.”

The Red Lake River flows into the city from the southeast, in the middle of town meets the Thief River which comes down from the north, and then flows back out to the southwest.

The city’s had a dam on the downstream leg of the Red Lake River near downtown since the 1880s, said Arlo Rude, director of utilities for the city of 8,300.

The current dam dates to 1946, downstream a short ways from the earlier dam. It holds back a reservoir that backs up into the Thief River and keeps the water as deep as 20 feet, providing water and hydroelectric power, spinning — much of the time— two turbines, Rude said. It’s only enough to power maybe 100 homes, and the city gets nearly all its electrical power wheeled in through wholesaler Minnkota Power in Grand Forks from coal-fired plants in western North Dakota, he said.

That’s why lowering the water for a week won’t hurt power in town, he said. The water will be kept high enough to keep the water plant running.

When Kuznia came to him with the idea of lowering the reservoir level, Rude told him that the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would have to give permission.

Kuznia got it.

“We will increase the flow (over the dam) for a couple of days,” Rude said. “The flow in the river is low now, so increasing the discharge from the dam will not be noticed much down-stream.”

The plan is to keep the water level in the reservoir down low for a week, Kuznia said.

Missing nearly a year

The mystery of Anderson’s disappearance — she left behind her purse with seizure medi-cine she needs daily and took no money, apparently — was deepened and worsened by the death of one of Anderson’s two sisters a few weeks later in a single-vehicle accident near Thief River Falls.

Anderson’s husband was at work when Gina disappeared. Men working on a house next door exchanged a few pleasantries with her as she left and they said she seemed fine.

Her husband notified authorities the next morning that she was missing.

Investigators have said he’s not a suspect, nor is anyone else.

Many leads were followed in the first month or two, but none panned out. Anderson’s family cooperated closely with law enforcement in several searches. But in recent months, Ander-son’s sister, Jackie Pagel, who lives in the Twin Cities, has criticized investigators for not trying hard enough, and not keeping the family up to date on the investigation.

Kuznia said he understands the frustration felt by Anderson’s family members, and shares it himself.

“We have got a lot of guys working this thing and just haven’t caught a break here yet,” Kuznia said.

The sheriff’s office, the Thief River Falls Police Department and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension all are involved in the 11-month-old case.

The planned river lowering isn’t based on any particular tip, Kuznia said.

“We are just going through the case and it’s just something we would like to see if she’s there or not, just to clear that up.”

The sheriff’s office has conducted other searches in and on the river, through ice, using a miniature sub with state-of-the-art detection technology.

“We’re just thinking that by draining it we are going to get a better look at what’s there.”

Rude will be in charge of opening the dam gates.

“It will answer some questions, I hope,” he said.