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?

In recent years, as the harmful ecological consequences of altering river currents has become better understood, campaigns to remove dams have gathered momentum. "I think people are much more willing to look at dam removal as a real option for river restoration," notes Elizabeth Maclin, who works as a dam removal coordinator for the group American Rivers. Since 1999, when American Rivers began its dam removal campaign, some 40 dams have been removed nationwide. In 2002, according to the group, 63 dams are scheduled to be removed.

Already there have been some notable success stories. In the summer of 1999 a 24-foot-high hydroelectric dam was removed from the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine. Three months later, schools of striped bass, long blocked from their historical feeding grounds, were seen roaming 18 miles upstream. The felling of the Edwards Dam is also expected to benefit at least nine other species of migratory fish, including the Atlantic salmon, says Maclin. "The river has come back a lot faster than anyone expected," she notes. "And now the community has started to really embrace it because it's brought some new development and recreation to the downtown."

To date there has been no organized effort to remove dams from the Mississippi or even to commence the discussion. "We're not gonna touch that one. Anything that would come out of this would be pure speculation," comments Mark Davidson, a spokesman for the Corps of Engineers' St. Paul district. Dick Lambert, the director of Ports and Waterways for the state Department of Transportation, says his agency is equally skeptical of any discussion about ending commercial navigation in Minneapolis. "If you knock out the locks, that would add 800-plus truckloads per day on our roadways for nine months," Lambert says. In addition, he ventures, the loss of barges might drive up freight rates by the simple fact of reduced competition.

Industry-friendly government agencies are not the only institutions that shy from such talk. At the St. Paul-based Friends of the Mississippi, the largest and best funded of the private river groups in town, dam removal is not on the agenda. Whitney Clark, the executive director of the Friends, says his organization has neither studied nor taken any formal stand on the issue. "Restoring the gorge is a wonderful idea," he ventures, "but it's not politically feasible." Not because of the politics of the barge industry, Clark posits, but rather the continued reliance of the Ford truck plant on the hydroelectric power generated at Lock and Dam No. 1. Ford is still a major employer in St. Paul, he notes, as well as Ramsey County's biggest taxpayer.

Given those concerns, the Friends of the Mississippi have staked out a centrist position on a related issue that could play a big role in the gorge's long-term future: Ford's application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a new 50-year permit to generate hydropower at Lock and Dam No. 1. The Friends are not opposing the issuance of the permit, says Clark, because "it's neither likely nor desirable for the dam to be removed while the Ford plant is operating." But the group is asking the FERC to require Ford to assess the impacts of the dam and power plant, which range from sedimentation caused by the impoundment of water at the head of the dam to fish mortality caused by the spinning turbines.

Such half measures don't satisfy all of the river's advocates. Saul Simon, director of the Winona-based Mississippi River Revival, notes that Ford's continued presence on the river is far from a sure thing. "Ford is not committed to keeping the plant open," says Simon. "It could easily be phased out in a couple of years. [But] they want to renew their 50-year license, because even if they shut down, they can keep selling that power," says Simon. For Simon, the key to the revival of the river is simple: the removal of heavy industry from the waterfront. When industry is gone--and, presumably, replaced by housing and parks--the need to operate locks and dams in Minneapolis will vanish with it. "I think most people see that way off in the future, maybe in the next 50 years. Because at some time, they are going to have to rebuild the dams, and then people will see that it's a boondoggle," Simon adds. "But I'd like to see the river restored before we're all dead."

 

After the whitewater park hearing, I called Mike Davis, an ecologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and told him I wanted to learn more about would happen if the locks and dams were to be removed from the gorge. In a blink, Davis agreed to set a date for an afternoon on the river, even though it meant a two-hour drive from his home in Lake City. Before hanging up, he explained his take on the restoration of the gorge. "Nobody has been putting this idea forward, because the political atmosphere is stifling. But if people even had a small awareness of what this area could become, there would be no more questions," he said. "We've been squandering this huge potential--the most significant, steepest rapids in the whole Mississippi River--for the sake of hauling some gravel and sand up the river, and making a few kilowatts of electricity. To me, it's just a no-brainer."

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