The Coon Rapids Dam may be developing an identity problem.

To most people, the dam is a scenic walkway, bisecting the east and west Mississippi River vistas and linking the Hennepin County side of the Coon Rapids Dam and Regional Park to the Anoka County side. The dam creates a summertime high-water play area for boaters and fishermen, and a low-water winter panorama for residents on both banks.

But under the water's surface sleeps an abandoned hydroelectric plant, that if restored, could create about 44,000 megawatt hours of renewable energy each year, according to the dam's owner and operator, Three Rivers Park District. The district also estimates that the dam eventually could generate as much as $1.4 million in revenue.

A multi-year licensing process will be necessary before any restoration can begin. Still, residents along the Coon Rapids bank, whose properties end somewhere between slope and current, say they feel out of the loop; most of those interviewed said a reporter's call was the first they'd heard of the idea.

There were lots of questions, who would pay for the project, and for ice damage to their banks and retaining walls, how a construction project would affect the park they've come to love, just steps outside their back doors.

The dam produced energy from 1913 to 1966. In 1969, Northern States Power (NSP) gave the dam, 225 acres and $300,000 to what was then Hennepin County Park Reserve District. 

The Park District, supported largely by its taxing authority in suburban Hennepin County, counts the dam as an important part of its park system, but officials say it's time for the dam to pull some of its own weight.

In the 40 years since NSP handed it over, the dam has needed about $11 million in maintenance and repairs. About a third has come from Three Rivers funds.

"That's $3.5 million of money that should be spent on parks and trails, instead of being spent on building and maintaining a dam," said Three Rivers Park District Superintendent Cris Gears. "Hydropower has the potential of generating revenue for somebody. It could be used to reinvest in the dam, rather than using public money year after year to operate and maintain the dam."

Besides, he said, it doesn't seem right to overlook a source of renewable energy.

"Exploring alternative energy sources is right in our wheelhouse," Gears said.

A utility partner would be necessary for the Park District to proceed with the project. The licensing process alone could take three years or longer.

Xcel Energy spokeswoman Patti Nystuen said there's nothing in the 1969 agreement to prevent the Park District from entering into any kind of partnership with a utility or city, or from selling the dam.

Xcel declined a Coon Rapids Dam proposal late last year, she said, citing the $28 million cost, and the time required to get the plant online. But the utility would be open to future proposals, she added.

The public weighs in

A public hearing in Coon Rapids, called by Minnesota Rep. Jerry Newton earlier this month, was part of the FERC process. A couple dozen residents and city officials listened to a Three Rivers presentation. Newton is working with Rep. Denise Dittrich to organize a meeting on the Hennepin County side of the river.

A 1993 campaign to restore the power plant fizzled, but not before sowing hard feelings among many riverside residents.

Among those is City Council Member Joe Sidoti, who represents and lives among riverside residents. Sidoti said at the hearing that he was most concerned about who is culpable for shoreline damage. A few days later, standing on his parcel of the snowy riverbank, he showed a visitor scars on a neighbor's oak trees, marks from backed up ice floes, dating from the power plant's previous incarnation.

"I really want to support this, but I can't, from a personal level, and representing 90 percent of the people who live on the river," he said. "I have the responsibility to these people to make sure that the facts are known before anything happens."

He worried that year-round high water needed for maximum electricity generation would bring back the bad old days when nobody lived on the river.

For their part, Sidoti's neighbors seemed more worried about the impact on the recreation area, and the project's approximately $28 million price tag. Restoration costs likely would be paid by a combination of state and federal green energy grants, private investment and municipal bonds.

"That's just too much money for a retired person, and there are a lot of retired people on the river because we don't give up our homes," said Karen Dittler, who has lived on the river for 30 years. She added that she would support the project only "if I see it as something that would really help green the area, and only if I see that it would really be cost effective."

Another neighbor, John Ogren, said he'd heard rumbling about the dam 20 years ago, from someone who asked why in the world not put the river's power to work.

He agrees, but not to the point where he'd be willing to invest personally or through increased taxes.

"If that thing went in and it could be paid for with the money it's generating, and if it would pay for itself, that would be the only deal that would make sense to me," he said.

On the other side, Alice McKinney, who with her husband, Roger, bought their home in 1977, said she's inclined to support the project.

"I'm all for alternative forms of energy that aren't going to pollute the environment for generations to come," she said.

She added that she might even be willing to invest in a project that might not show returns during her lifetime.

"I'm looking a picture of my six grandchildren here," she said. "What do I want to leave them?"

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409