July 08–It may be time to unleash the Mississippi River.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering the possibility of three metro-area dams being removed — which would transform the slow-moving commercial waterway into a whitewater rapids.
The Corps wants to sell or give away the Upper St. Anthony Lock but not the dam, which is owned by Xcel Energy Inc.; the Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam near downtown Minneapolis; and Lock and Dam No. 1 by the Ford Parkway Bridge.
Officials are hosting meetings this month to discuss what to do, but just talking about restoring the river to its natural state has fired up a public debate.
“This change is coming very fast and very quietly,” said Kevin Chapdelaine, president of the Friends of Pool 2, the area of the Mississippi between St. Paul and Hastings. “I think this is a very under-thought idea.”
John Anfinson says the time for the discussion is now. “This is the first time since the founding of the Twin Cities that we can have a conversation about what we want the river to be,” said Anfinson, superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreational Area.
Removing the dams would restore the river to its original, wild state.
In 1805, explorer Zebulon Pike provided the earliest known description of the river below St. Anthony Falls. “He said it was ‘one continuous falls’ for about four miles downstream,” said Anfinson.
The river crashed around boulders to the present-day Lake Street bridge, and around smaller rocks to the present-day Ford Dam. The roughest areas tapered off where the Mississippi joined the Minnesota River past Fort Snelling.
Anfinson said the rapids were so powerful that in 1858, steamboats visited St. Paul 1,000 times and Minneapolis only 50 times.
The river was tamed by 1963, when the Corps finished a series of locks and dams.
In 2015, the Corps permanently shut down the Upper St. Anthony Lock to stop the spread of the invasive Asian carp. But the closure also stopped barge traffic — ending the era of heavy commercial use.
Corps officials immediately started to ask: Why should the locks remain open?
They cost the Corps about $1.2 million a year to maintain, said Anfinson.
The Corps began a formal “Disposition Study” in August 2017, which includes public meetings set for July 16 and 17. It is expected to make its recommendations by 2019, according to Corps spokesman George Stringham.
The locks are now used only by a few excursion boats. “Is it in the best interests to keep them open?” said Stringham.
Greg Genz, vice president of Friends of Pool 2, said the locks and dams would be offered to other federal agencies, but he doesn’t expect that they would want them.
After that, he said, local and state units of government might bid on the dams. The new owner could keep the locks and dams open, or close them.
“I don’t know if I have ever seen dam removal like this in a major metro area, especially dams with that much” vertical drop, said Genz.
What would it cost?
A comparable project removing or altering three dams in Penobscot, Maine, recently cost about $62 million, said spokeswoman Olivia Dorothy of American Rivers, a national advocacy group that works to protect and restore rivers. That group supports removing the Mississippi dams.
Mississippi superintendent Anfinson said restoring the rapids that Pike saw would be healthier for fish and would clean the water.
It would also be scenic. The fast-flowing waters through the maze of boulders would be a magnet for kayakers and canoe paddlers. Boaters going downstream from Minneapolis would experience a 75-foot drop, spread out over about six miles.
And the personality of the river would change in late summer, as the water subsided.
“You’d be able to wade across the river,” said Anfinson. “On a hot summer day, people would be inner-tubing by the thousands.”
It is a unique opportunity, according to American Rivers’ Dorothy.
The Mississippi originally had four sets of rapids along its 2,320-mile stretch — in St. Paul; Keokuk, Iowa; Rock Island, Ill.; and near St. Louis. The Minnesota rapids are the only ones with any hope of being restored, she said.
Some groups question the wisdom of dumping the dams.
Restoring the whitewater section would prevent power-boaters from using the river, or excursion boats using it for sightseeing, said Friends of Pool 2’s Chapdelaine.
He said there could be another disadvantage — the 2 million cubic feet of silt backed up behind the dams. If that amount of crud washed downstream, said Chapdelaine, it would choke up the river from St. Paul to Lake Pepin.
“You remove the dams and the river scours itself out. The silt is full of heavy metals and dioxins,” said Chapdelaine.
But Anfinson said the silt was not a deal breaker. “It is a valid concern, but is it something that couldn’t be handled? No,” he said. “You’d be transforming the river from a lake back to a river.”
The Friends of the Mississippi River is a group that gives the idea a cautious endorsement. Executive director Whitney Clark said the community needs to discuss all proposals carefully.
“We stop short of saying, ‘Rip ’em out! Go for it!’ ” said Clark. “But this is a very exciting idea, and our organization is intrigued with it.”
IF YOU GO
Two public meetings have been scheduled to discuss the disposition of the three dams in the metro area.
* 6 to 8 p.m. July 16 at Mill City Museum, 704 Second St. S., Minneapolis
* 6 to 8 p.m. July 17 at Highland Park Senior High School, 1015 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul