Let the River Run

Many years ago, before the locks & dams were built, the Mississippi River ran wild through the heart of Minneapolis. Why not again?

Around 6:00 p.m. on August 14, on such a perfect late summer afternoon that you had to be half crazy to remain indoors, about 30 people gathered in a dimly lit meeting room at the University of Minnesota's Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. It was a funny mix: a dozen or so kayaking nuts, a few Birkenstock-clad neighborhood activists, a handful of bureaucrats from the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, two private consultants, and a few stray river rats--a category in which, for the lack of any better designation, I include myself. We were there to talk about the future of a small stretch of the Mississippi River. More accurately, we were there to talk about a possible future for that stretch of river. After all, there are--and have always been--a lot of different ideas about what should be done with the Mississippi.

The folks at the Weisman were interested in the waters that surround the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in downtown Minneapolis. Like much of the urban Mississippi, it is a forlorn and blighted area. On the east side, just below the dam, there is a rusted steel retaining wall, a homely old power plant, and an unused barge dock that is adorned with some of the most egregiously uninspired graffiti in town. The west side is dominated by the lock, through which barges and pleasure boats must pass to move up or down the river. And then there is the dam itself--a 275-foot-wide, 25-foot-high expanse of concrete and steel. There is little left of the natural river around Lower St. Anthony. But the high bluffs--carved by the swift, upriver retreat of St. Anthony Falls over the past 10,000 years-- suggest a grandeur that becomes more evident as you move downriver into the deepening gorge; you can't visit without wondering what it looked like before the engineers got hold of it, before the damming, before the dredging.

On this late afternoon, we were talking about reclaiming a bit of the river's past, with some economic and recreational synergy thrown in for good measure. The plan: to construct a 2,000-foot-long, 40-foot-wide channel along the east side of the river. The channel would begin just above the dam and rapidly descend to the river below, dropping in elevation about 25 feet. Control gates at the head of the channel would allow operators to manipulate the current--raging white water for Olympic-level kayak competitions (or adrenaline junkies), gentler flows for canoeists and rafters.

The proposal is the brain child of the Mississippi Whitewater Park Development Corporation, a nonprofit formed by a group of Twin Cities kayaking enthusiasts in the mid-'90s. The estimated $15 million it would take to construct the park has yet to be appropriated. Still, it seems a solid candidate for success. A study funded by the state legislature concluded that the park would attract a minimum of 50,000 visitors annually. And the project has garnered the enthusiastic backing of both the DNR and the Corps of Engineers.

In recent years the corps has been the object of a growing chorus of criticism over its management of the river. Environmentalists have long contended that the corps policy of dredging the Mississippi to accommodate barge traffic has caused dramatic and possibly irreparable harm to its ecosystems. More recently, budget hawks (along with environmentalists) have accused the corps of cooking its books to justify a planned expansion of the lock system.

The whitewater park offers a measure of redemption on both counts. Economically, it dovetails with other riverfront redevelopment projects now under way in downtown Minneapolis, including the much-ballyhooed Mill Ruins Park and the new Guthrie Theater. And it promises considerable ecological benefits. Migrating fish, currently blocked by the lock and dam, could use the new channel to move up- and downriver. The swift, highly oxygenated shallow waters in the channel would serve as a spawning ground for other fish species--precisely the type of habitat that was eliminated with the construction of the lock and dams. Perhaps most significant, boosters say, the whitewater park would go a long way toward getting Twin Cities residents to become more interested in the welfare of a river that has been consigned to the rough roles of sewer and workhorse for most of the past 150 years.

But as I sat through the presentation at the Weisman, soaking up the details of what seemed to be an entirely worthy idea, I couldn't get a thought out of my head: Why isn't anyone having the big discussion?

Why don't we just rip out the locks and dams altogether?

This would entail removing the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, and, five miles downstream, Lock and Dam No. 1. What would happen? To begin with, the water levels would drop dramatically. As a result, the river's only gorge--which runs from Upper St. Anthony Falls to the confluence with the Minnesota River--would seem to deepen. More important, dam removal would restore one of the upper Mississippi's greatest natural features: the original eight miles of whitewater rapids that once ran downriver from St. Anthony Falls.

For fish and birds (not to mention kayakers), the benefits of a freed river would be immense. It would also give the Twin Cities a reputation as a leader in river restoration, a burgeoning movement on both coasts. What would be lost? Some hydroelectric power. A relatively small (and heavily subsidized) amount of commercial barge traffic. Extreme ease of travel for pleasure boaters. No doubt, there are other reasons to maintain the existing infrastructure on the river. But there is no reason--no good reason, at least--not to begin a public debate on the subject.

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