Threat: Outdated Lock and Dam Infrastructure
The Mississippi River is the heartbeat of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. However, since commercial barge traffic ended in the Gorge, two locks and dams built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are preventing the metro area from restoring the natural flow and character of the river. The dams also limit new recreational and economic opportunities and the chance to restore habitat for fish and wildlife. The Army Corps should recommend to Congress that the dams be removed so that the Twin Cities can reconnect with a revitalized Mississippi River.
About The River
The Mississippi River Gorge runs approximately eight miles from Saint Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis to the Minnesota River confluence in Mendota, Minnesota. In the Gorge, steep bluffs extend to the waterline and are mostly undeveloped throughout the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Park land and walkways parallel the top of the bluffs, and some areas are crisscrossed with hiking trails. From the water, recreational boaters experience a feeling of remoteness even though they are paddling through a major metropolitan area. However, despite the river’s proximity to the city’s center and its National Park designation, it has the fewest number of recreational boaters on the Upper Mississippi River Navigation System in the St. Paul District.
The Gorge is impounded by two navigation dams that also produce hydropower: Lower Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, and Lock and Dam 1. The dams are impacting a river corridor that supports many state and/or federal species of concern, including black buffalo fish, paddlefish, northern long-eared bat, eleven species of mussels, and Blanding’s turtle.
We are at risk of missing an opportunity to restore part of an untamed Mississippi River and bring back fish and wildlife that were exiled a century ago. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying Lower Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, and Lock and Dam 1, to determine if it is in the taxpayers’ best interest to continue paying for maintenance and operation of the structures. This study will also determine if other federal, state, local, non-profit and private entities are interested in future ownership of the properties. Upon completion of the study, the Army Corps will submit recommendations to Congress on the fate of the infrastructure. This study provides a rare opportunity to influence the future of the Mississippi River Gorge and residents’ connections with the river.
If the Army Corps decides to keep the dams in place, aquatic habitat in the Gorge could continue to decline for a generation or more. On the Upper Mississippi River, habitat is degrading faster than it can be restored through existing conservation programs, and the river’s dams are a primary cause of declining aquatic habitat. The stretch around Saint Anthony Falls was once one of four big river rapids on the Upper Mississippi. Today, a lone remnant of the St. Louis Chain of Rocks rapids is all that remains. While the Gorge’s bluffs have been mostly protected as public parkland, the dams remain, blocking access to unique habitat for fish and wildlife and stifling natural river processes.
Historically, the Gorge’s narrow, rocky channel would have been used by several aquatic species of concern that seek swifter water and rockier substrates for parts of their lifecycles. Some of these species include: American eel, paddlefish, lake sturgeon and Higgins’ eye pearlymussel. Removing the dams is the only sure way to revive the unique rapids ecosystem in the Mississippi River Gorge.
Artist renditions of a free-flowing river through the Gorge show kayaking opportunities and riverfront activities within the newly restored parkland open to the public. This would be one of the nation’s biggest urban dam removal and river restoration efforts– a chance to restore the river’s natural functions for current and future generations.
The dams in the Mississippi River Gorge were built to support an industry vision dating back to the 1800s. Although the dams currently produce hydropower, their capacity is tens of thousands of kilowatts below the 55,000 kW national average, and their actual production is lesser still. Keeping the dams in place would require millions of dollars annually to safely maintain the infrastructure, some of which is a century old, while the river’s ecosystem continues to degrade.
The time is ripe to take a bold step forward towards a new vision of the Gorge that removes the environmentally damaging features of a 150-year-old industrial plan, restores the natural flow and character of the river, rehabilitates habitat for fish and wildlife, and promotes compatible recreation and business opportunities.
What Must Be Done
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should recommend that Congress accept the fiscally-responsible solution of dam removal for the structures in the Mississippi River Gorge. Furthermore, state and federal agencies, including the National Parks Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, need to participate in the Army Corps’ study process to develop a proposal that will realize the restoration of the Mississippi River Gorge.