Two of Minnesota's most cherished rivers and one in western Wisconsin were listed among the 10 most endangered rivers in the country Tuesday by a national conservation group hoping to draw attention to their plight.
American Rivers named the Mississippi River gorge one of the most endangered as part of its new campaign to restore the river's natural flow and rapids through the Twin Cities by removing the Ford Dam and Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam under the Interstate 35W bridge. Neither is used anymore for commercial traffic, and the Army Corps of Engineers is expected to announce in coming months that it wants to dispose of them for cost reasons.
The Kinnickinnic in River Falls, Wis., was also placed on the annual list of endangered rivers in connection with the community's ongoing debate over removing two dams in the center of town, which would restore its natural and swift drop to the St. Croix River, and revive it as a trout stream.
And the Kawishiwi River, which flows through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, again was named as one of the most endangered waterways due to the potential environmental impact of a proposed copper-nickel mining project along its banks.
Both the Kawishiwi and the St. Louis River have been named by American Rivers in the past as threatened by mining. State mining interests, however, say that the projects can be built to meet regulatory standards and environmental protections.
The listing of the Mississippi for dam removal highlights what is likely to be a major debate in the coming years — how to remake the Twin Cities' century-old relationship with the river. The idea is already generating resistance among those with a stake in keeping the dams operational.
"As far as we are concerned we were given a federal license to operate, and we intend to maintain those rights moving forward," said Andy Davis, director of stakeholder relations at Brookfield Renewable, which operates hydroelectric power systems on both dams, generating enough clean power for 22,000 households.
The issue cascades from the closing of the Upper and Lower St. Anthony locks three years ago to prevent invasive Asian carp from working their way up the Mississippi from Iowa. Since then, commercial traffic on the Ford Dam and through St. Anthony's lower lock and dam has largely come to a halt.
The Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of a study to decide what to do with all three structures and will hold public meetings on the issue this summer. But without commercial traffic, the Army Corps no longer has a reason to pay to maintain the structures, a problem the federal agency is facing in other states as well.
The Ford Dam and Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock together cost the federal government about $1.5 million a year to operate.
The giant St. Anthony lock has been bolted shut, but the structure and the falls will stay in place. The city of Minneapolis is seeking funding to turn it into a destination and visitor center for the Mississippi National River Recreational Area.
But beneath the wide placid pools created downstream of the dams lies a tumbling whitewater river that once surged through a gorge from St. Anthony Falls and beyond. Now, there are groups advocating for the removal of the dams as a way to restore long-gone native fish, mussels and other aquatic life, and to connect people to what they say could be an extraordinary urban river.
"It would be phenomenal," said Luther Aadland, a consultant with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who has worked on many of the 78 dam removal projects and redesigns already completed on Minnesota rivers.
Remnant of the rapids
Historically, there were only four such rapids-based ecosystems on the entire length of the Mississippi, considered critical habitat for fish such as sturgeon, paddlefish, and American eel not seen by river anglers for decades. Now, there is only a remnant of a rapids left in St. Louis, raising the stakes for the remaking of the Twin Cities gorge, said Olivia Dorothy of American Rivers.
"The rest have been completely drowned by the lock-and-dam system," she said. "We hope that it's feasible to restore the historic habitat that's been lost from the entire Mississippi River system."
Restoring the rapids would also fundamentally change recreation from lake fishing, power-boating and rowing to river fishing, kayaking, canoeing and even tubing when conditions are right.
"It's an exciting idea," said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River. "It could have some really important benefits for recreation and tourism."
But he predicted a long and perhaps fractious process, especially over who would pay for the removal, and where it would rank next to other expensive projects. He said that it will be critical to get public participation and involvement in such a historic decision.
And while the Army Corps is expected to report that it no longer wants to own or maintain the structures, there could be other options. Davis said that his company would likely advocate for another public agency to take them over. If that's not possible, he said, the company would have to consider the financial pros and cons of acquiring them.
The city of River Falls is much farther along in a similar discussion about the removal of two century-old hydroelectric dams on the Kinnickinnic that would restore the falls that the city was named for.
Upstream from River Falls, the Kinni is known for its cold-water trout fishing. Downstream, it's famous for the exhilarating kayaking run to the St. Croix.
But in the city itself, two hydroelectric dams built around 1900 slow the flow, creating two impoundments that have filled with sediment, warming the trout stream and hampering fishing below.
For years the city has debated the pros and cons of unleashing the river, which would dramatically change the character of the downtown, said Michael Page, a local resident and president of the Friends of the Kinni.
Now, he said, the river walk through town is essentially "a back alley with dumpsters." Removing the dams "would absolutely revitalize our community."
But officials say that the city-owned hydroelectric system still has some life in it. In February, the City Council passed a resolution calling for the removal of the lower dam, but extending the federal licensing of the upper dam through 2035 or beyond.
Page said that decision is not final, and he hopes to change it. He ran for City Council on a dam-removal platform and won. He assumes his seat on the council in a few weeks.
The Kawishiwi, meanwhile, is one of two battlegrounds in Minnesota's fight over clean water and copper-nickel mining. It flows out of the BWCA, and then back into it, a major contributor to the wilderness area and the Rainy Lake watershed.
Twin Metals, a subsidiary of the Chilean mining giant Antofagasta, is developing what could be a major project along the banks, which environmental groups say poses an unacceptable threat to the wilderness area.
The company has not yet proposed a project, and is still doing explorations. But Twin Metals officials say that the underground mine can be built without putting the BWCA at risk.