Restore the Mississippi River? Twin Cities Say “Yes”

There is significant support for removing two Mississippi River dams in the Minneapolis-St Paul community. American Rivers has released a report on community response to restoring the Mississippi River Gorge.

Mississippi Gorge | Olivia Dorothy

Since the Upper St Anthony Falls Lock was ordered closed in 2015, the Minneapolis-St Paul community has been considering the future of the Mississippi River in the Gorge – the stretch of river between the falls and its confluence with the Minnesota River about 10 miles downstream. The Mississippi River Gorge was once a long stretch of whitewater, but over the last century it has been dammed and pooled for hydropower and navigation. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers owns the two dams in the Gorge. With relatively little barge traffic and high maintenance costs, the Army Corps is evaluating the fate of the infrastructure. Without navigation and the associated investments from the Army Corps, the river through the Gorge will change.

Dam 1 by US Army Corps of Engineers (top) and Lower St Anthony Falls Dam by Olivia Dorothy (bottom).

In response the Army Corps’ evaluation, American Rivers hosted a public meeting in summer 2017 with the neighborhood Longfellow Community Council about the future of the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities. We were interested in hearing what the community thought about removing the dams to restore the Gorge.

The meeting was very well attended, with more than 100 people filling the pews at St. Peder’s Church in Minneapolis. To start the meeting, experts from the National Park Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and Army Corps of Engineers talked about the natural history of the Mississippi Gorge and the Corps’ process for determining the fate of the infrastructure. American Rivers’ Brian Graber and Olivia Dorothy talked about the multiple benefits of dam removal and how removing the dams could restore the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities.

Mississippi Gorge restoration renderings from Lake Street (top) and Franklin Street (bottom).
Mississippi Gorge restoration renderings from Lake Street (top) and Franklin Street (bottom). Click to enlarge.

Following the presentations, critics of the proposal were vocal. Rowing club members lamented the loss of calm pools should the dams be removed. Others were concerned about the loss of hydropower, a renewable energy source for the community, and the lack of coordination thus far with the Native American community. However, after all the written comments were reviewed, they showed that about twice as many people expressed support for river restoration as opposed it. While the critics have been vocal in expressing their significant concerns about restoring the river, it seems the majority of participants actually support the restoration concept.

And the comments and conversations generated several questions that American Rivers and partners plan to explore, including:

  1. Identifying other locations for competitive rowing activities.
  2. Replacing lost hydropower with another renewable energy source.
  3. Clarifying the environmental benefits of dam removal in the gorge.
  4. Developing plans to expand/improve recreational access.
  5. Exploring the needs of minority and low-income people in planning.
  6. Identifying any infrastructure that might be vulnerable to changing river discharge.

Moving forward, American Rivers will work with partners to explore these six areas of interest to better understand and articulate the restoration option for the Mississippi River in Minneapolis-St. Paul. In the meanwhile, the Army Corps has stalled their study of whether to retire the locks and dams as they await funding from the federal budget. We are hoping that study resumes in the next year.

To read the full report from the meeting and summer survey, visit https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1yvh37LdfRtleKcdxD7zA0itR3V7ayyYV?usp=sharing

9 responses to “Restore the Mississippi River? Twin Cities Say “Yes”

  1. Better consider what would be the effect to barge traffic, without barges there would be hundreds of more trucks hauling grain and other materials on our highways causing traffic and roadway repair issues.

    1. This is a good question the community considered before they closed the upper lock. There had been no barge traffic in the gorge since Congress closed the upper lock in 2015. And re-establishment of barge traffic is unlikely since the land along the gorge is entirely public parkland.

  2. This is a great idea and would be a true asset to Minneapolis and St Paul residents. Milwaukee removed a number of Damns backing up the Milwaukee river in the urban center and this has resulted in a tremendous revitalization of the river corridor. I look forward to the day when the Mississippi runs free (downstream of the Stone Arch bridge)!

  3. The St Anthony Falls Dam is the only thing stopping the Asian Carp from getting into the upper stretches of the river. But below wouldn’t be a problem taking out as many dams as possible.

  4. I do agree with Peter Loring, but would also like to propose adding the whitewater park in the originally intended location as has been discussed numerous times for the previous decade.
    Clean up the present area, add a whitewater park, shoreline walkways, a few more scenic lookouts and leave the rowing club as is.
    Jeff

  5. Dear Olivia,
    Respectfully, this report is extremely biased, as was the town hall meeting that you organized. At the meeting, all of the presenters were from your side of the discussion. The only opposing input came during the question period and was from the rowing community, and the hydro electric community. They were only allowed to stand and speak after hearing your presentation. To facilitate a discussion of all sides you need to allow the other sides to present. What you are doing with this report and the town hall meeting leaves the public ill informed of what is currently going on in the river that very few actually use.

    At the town hall meeting we discussed what would be expected if the dams were removed. Your team said the river would return to its natural “wild” self. Yet, when asked if the boulders and material that had been dredged out it for the last 50 plus years would be returned, your experts said no. So the river will not be “wild” again. In fact it will likely flow down the dredged channel. The images your team showed where Photoshop images of a wild river that spanned shore to shore. When asked if this would be the normal condition your experts said no; the average flow rate is much less than what is being portrayed in these images. I knew to ask this, as I live on the river in Brooklyn Park and see that for most of the summer the river has a low flow rate that does not encourage boaters north of the 694 bridge. A low flow rate does not create the depth needed to span the current shores as was shown in the Photoshop images, but it would fill a dredged channel.

    Your side of this effort claims that recreational users, mostly white water kayakers, would bring economic wealth to the area. Well, there is already economic wealth on the river from two century old rowing clubs. One is a nationally acclaimed university team the other a nationally acclaimed private team. Those two teams have over 600 paying students, members, and coaches. They organize two national races each year on the river attracting hundreds of participants, support crew, and viewers. This kind of water cannot be replaced for these teams, in close proximity. I have a hard time believing a few hundred recreational kayakers will replace the economic investment these teams have made in the gorge. Consider that many of the members of Minneapolis Rowing Club have purchased homes to be near the river. Many children attend the University of Minnesota to belong to the rowing club. All of that would slowly disappear with the removal of these dams. And for the record, there are already a lot of canoers and kayakers on the water.

    Your side of the discussion made no effort to balance the loss of “green” electric energy being produced in the gorge. Someone said that there are tens of thousands of homes getting their power from those generators. They also said that it would be impossible to put wind or solar replacements for the generators close enough to Minneapolis to replace them. Would the economic wealth from white water kayakers somehow replace that non-carbon emitting power?

    As for the return of historical species of fish and mussels, I am sure some would return to that 3 mile stretch of water, but not with the abundance you have claimed. If those animals were ready to expand their reach to the stone arch bridge, wouldn’t they already be just below the Ford dam, you propose to remove, waiting for the moment when they can advance farther upstream? If the presence of a the Ford dam is keeping them away, then wouldn’t the Upper St. Anthony dam have the same resistive force on the species return to the river? Your team stated that the Upper St. Anthony dam was not going to be removed, nor was the Coon Rapids dam, so would the return of the fish and mussels look just like the habitat down stream of the Ford dam?

    I am in favor of removing dams when it makes sense, but in this case, with the rational you have proposed this make no sense for our communities. Minneapolis has recreational users of the river and is gaining valuable, non-replaceable, “green” energy from it. Had the public been given this information, I believe they would not have said they were in favor of removing the dams.

    Sincerely,

    Peter

    1. Peter, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. American Rivers works hard to provide communities with accurate information and options to restore rivers. Dam removal is the fastest, most effective way to bring a river back to life, and we have worked with communities all over the country to remove dams that are no longer economically viable. As the Corps of Engineers moves forward with the disposition study, they will explore a number of alternatives, including keeping the dams in place if economically feasible.

      Regarding our expert testimony at the public meeting, a full feasibility study and restoration plan has not yet been developed by the Corps or others, so it is difficult to precisely estimate what the rapids will look like immediately following dam removal and how the river bed would change after the dams are removed. Our experts expressed that uncertainty at the meeting. We have developed models on projects elsewhere in the country to estimate changes in the water level, water velocity, and streambed that would result from dam removals, and if the Mississippi Gorge project proceeds, either the Corps or outside consultants would produce those models.

      With any dam removal, recreational use of the river changes. Currently, access to the Mississippi River in the Gorge is restricted to those individuals with the financial resources to participate in one of the rowing clubs or those who own motor boats and can lock in from Pool 2. According to federal statistics, which were discussed at the meeting, while Pool 1 is located in one of the most densely populated stretches of the Mississippi River, it has the fewest recreation users. Additionally, the Corps has recently discussed their preliminary results from a model that shows that as they stop maintaining the channel above Lock and Dam 1, the pool will accumulate sediment quickly. As the Corps finalizes their model and results, this reality needs to be reviewed and discussed by the community as the suitability of the pools for flatwater recreation may decline regardless of dam removal.

      At the meeting and in the report, American Rivers discussed replacing the renewable energy produced at Lower St Anthony Falls Dam and Lock and Dam 1. American Rivers has successfully worked at other dam removal sites to replace lost hydropower by increasing production at other facilities or swapping hydropower with solar panels. The report identifies this as a topic for further exploration.

      It should also be noted that the fish and wildlife benefits of dam removal were provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, not American Rivers. The presence of dams do not simply “block” migrating fish, but also fundamentally change river habitat including water velocity and substrate, two factors that are extremely important to many fish and mussel species. It was also noted in the presentations that, where the Upper St Anthony Falls Dam and Spillway is currently located, there was a natural waterfall that blocked the migration of many species. Early fish and wildlife surveys found completely distinct compositions of fish above and below the falls. As a natural barrier has been present at this location for 10,000 years or so, American Rivers supports the continued operation of Upper St Anthony Falls Dam. American Rivers hopes to restore the stretch of rapids below the Upper Dam, which is a unique Mississippi River ecosystem that existed at 4 locations: Minneapolis, Rock Island, Keokuk and St Louis. Only a small part of the St Louis rapids remains, from which we know that these big river rapids provided very unique and irreplaceable habitat for Mississippi River species.

      We welcome your comments in future public hearings about the river. While American Rivers’ goal is to restore free-flowing rivers where possible, it is important that all information and opinions are heard to help decision-makers make informed decisions.


      Olivia Dorothy
      Associate Director
      Upper Mississippi River Basin
      American Rivers

  6. Anyone can see this would be insanely cool! They’d show it on national tv every football game or other major event was televised. The Twin Cities would be truly be known as the “River City”. The key here is to convince the city councils and mayors of both Minneapolis and Saint Paul that this would attract business and tourists to the Twin Cities in a unique way. Show economic benefits and they’ll get on board. The Corps of Engineers wants to get rid of the dam headache and will listen to them. Go for it!

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