Recently, the Lower St. Anthony Falls lock and dam was opened and the Mississippi River’s water level dropped, creating a preview of a free-flowing river. People loved it. The banks were packed, kayakers played in the rapids and onlookers lined the Stone Arch Bridge. The people of Minnesota prefer the Mississippi free and the few days that the dam was opened proved it.
The Lower St. Anthony Falls lock and dam, built in 1956, and the Ford Dam, built in 1917, should be removed. I could speak for ages about the ecological significance of removing the dams — better fish habitat, flourishing beds of mussels and so on — but I want to speak about the human side of things.
A Mississippi flowing free is more valuable to Minnesotans than a Mississippi dammed.
There are down sides to removing the dams. Mainly, it would be quite expensive. Don’t let that dissuade you, though. The money would go to Minnesota’s skilled trades people and we would no longer spend millions of dollars for the dams’ upkeep.
Plus, people already know that investment in the river is a good idea. Take a proposed boardwalk along the top of St. Anthony Falls (called “the Wishbone”). If people think that a $100 million boardwalk, next to an already popular viewing bridge, would be a good investment, they ain’t seen nothing yet.
Another downside is that removing the dams would change how the river is used. Without the dams, a few tour boats would be rendered useless. We should buy them out, acknowledging the losses.
There are also rowers who use the calm river waters to hone their skills. Preserving the dams to ensure calm water that benefits rowers is a good thing to do. Removing the dams and allowing the river to flow free is the right thing to do. We should mourn the loss of rowers but we should not dam a river for them. Change always comes with the loss of what once was.
Now, join me in a vision of what we would gain if we let the Mississippi flow free. The river’s water would be shallower and would bubble over rocky riffles and drop out in deep, calm pools. Sandbars would form along inside banks and the life of the river would flourish.
Rapids could be designed to encourage kayaking, guided rafting and perhaps even standing wave surfing. Imagine the revenue of the shops catering to those sports!
Extra space along the riverbanks would make room for parks and give space for seasonal flooding. Tourists, ogling the river, will visit local restaurants and stores. Fishermen would come to cast into prime fish habitat.
Free flowing rivers are more scenic, and scenic places are valuable. A free Mississippi would attract people, improve recreation and bring tourism. These things not only grow monetary value but also community value.
There is another reason we should let the Mississippi flow free: respect. The Mississippi is a part of our community and our families. It is sacred. Keeping the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam and the Ford Dam would be an insult to the river. It has given us so much. The least we can do is let be free again. We should not lust for control or tameness. Re-wilding the Mississippi would allow the river to adapt itself to changes in climate, landscape and time. It is more sophisticated to react to the changing bends of a river than to try and bend the river to our own expectations and desires.
Over the next few years, the beginning steps for taking out the dams are going to happen more quickly. You must make your support known. Tell your leaders, the business community, friends, family and the media about the vision of a free Mississippi. Tell them about the value in tourism, recreation, beauty, community and respect that would be gained by removing the dams. It truly is an investment that will pay for itself.
Jack Distel, of Minneapolis, is an ecological hydrologist.