– Standing in bitter cold under sparkling snowflakes, two university students offering blue “Free the Kinni” buttons call out to people participating in what’s billed as the largest communitywide planning project in the city’s history.

“We want the Kinni saved before it gets ruined,” Rosie Pechous of Hastings, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, said of the Kinnickinnic River.

Hundreds of residents poured into a recent city-sponsored forum to examine the future of the Kinnickinnic, including the possible removal of two century-old hydroelectric dams that would return the river to its free-flowing state.

Topics included the environmental implications of stormwater runoff and sediment accumulation, the costs of keeping or removing the dams, and the Kinni’s recreational and tourism potential in this city of 22,000.

Although the Kinni Corridor Project concentrates exclusively on the River Falls portion of the Kinnickinnic, wider implications for the impaired Lower St. Croix River loom as well. Because the 22-mile Kinni is one of six major tributaries that feed the St. Croix, many arguments for or against a free-flowing Kinni ultimately lead to discussions of the St. Croix’s aquatic health.

“There’s a world out there that’s much bigger than just the dams,” said Scot Simpson, the city administrator. “I can be pretty assured that whatever we do as a community isn’t going to do anything but benefit the St. Croix River.”

The pros and cons

Upstream from River Falls, the Kinni is known for its cold-water trout fishing. Downstream, kayakers and canoers travel the river to Kinnickinnic State Park where it empties into the St. Croix River.

It’s in the middle stretch, through the city, where the two dams that were built long ago changed the character of the Kinni.

It was about 1900 when River Falls acquired a private hydroelectric dam and built a second one to generate electricity. The Junction Falls and Powell Falls dams replaced natural waterfalls with concrete structures. Behind each dam, shallow lake-like bodies of water described as “impoundments” filled with sediment and warmed the trout stream by several degrees, hampering fishing downstream.

Removing the dams, advocates say, would restore cold water temperatures downstream, open the entire Kinni to paddling and floating, and replace shallow lakes with parks and trails along a free-flowing river.

“We’re River Falls, and we don’t have a waterfall,” said Michael Page, a local dentist and member of Friends of the Kinni.

But former city engineer Frank Ogden said the dams have 25 years of use remaining and he sees no point in removing them. He said that both the lakes on the river, Louise and George, should be dredged to remove sediment and protect the St. Croix downstream.

Another member of the project committee, Susan Reese, fields points of view from both sides. “I hear people concerned about taking out a healthy dam for the sake of water quality,” she said. People also object to the potential cost of removing the dams and losing two lakes and to voluntarily giving up a source of renewable energy, she said.

But Page, wearing a bright-blue “Free the Kinni” sweatshirt, said that removing the dams and the “cesspool ponds” behind them would begin a new era for River Falls by building tourism and drawing even more people to fish and float the Kinni.

“We could turn this into a world-class trout stream,” he said.

Dams have a long history

Like many older cities, River Falls was founded beside the Kinnickinnic — an Ojibwe name meaning “what is mixed” — to generate much-needed power for early mills.

Nationwide, according to the advocacy group American Rivers, 1,300 dams were removed from 1912 through 2015 as cities embraced water quality and recognized how rivers might enrich local economies as tourist destinations.

The River Falls dams once produced all the city’s electricity, but that contribution has shrunk to about 1.5 percent, said Buddy Lucero, the Kinni project manager. Because the 30-year license to operate the hydroelectric dams expires in 2023, city officials decided to initiate a detailed community discussion on the future of a 6-mile stretch of the Kinni through River Falls and surrounding townships, he said.

“River Falls wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Kinnickinnic River,” Lucero said. “This is the lifeline that comes into the city that helps us develop. It’s just not a matter of turning off electricity. It’s a matter of planning for the future of the river.”

The river’s true potential

The Kinni is something of a forgotten amenity as it sneaks through downtown River Falls. Blocks of old buildings face away from the river, as if turning a cold shoulder to it.

“The river is eventually the most beautiful area of town that could be developed,” said Jerry McAulay, a retired White Bear Lake geography teacher who created seven 3-D maps of his hometown of River Falls. Closing the dams, he said, “would free up some nice parks.”

McAulay said the river drops 400 feet from its beginnings northeast of River Falls to where it enters gorges on the other side of the city. The river defines River Falls, he said, because it’s its greatest natural resource and the centerpiece of its rising and falling topography.

Simpson said residents can contribute their ideas for the Kinni’s future in forums and hearings over the next few years. The debate, he said, echoes earlier discussions about the Kinni that have been “an important part of the community dialogue” for the city’s 150-year history.

River Falls residents love their river, he said, and together they will decide what’s best for the Kinni.

“The general temperament of people in River Falls is they like to hear more about things and like to have discussions,” Simpson said. “They’re also not necessarily beholden to the status quo.”