Let the River Run

Michael Dvorak

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.


I am not sure when I fell under the river's spell. The easy answer is a year and a half ago, when, at the tail end of a drab winter, I bought a used boat with a 15-horsepower Johnson outboard motor. After exploring a few area lakes, I discovered the river and found myself goofing around on the water as an alternative to watching television, reading, or engaging in any of the other activities characteristic of a normal and balanced human existence. When I was on the river, the rest of the world had a pleasing way of receding. People say that fishing is a contemplative activity, but I found it to be the opposite. For me, pursuing what lies under the flat, impossibly smooth waters at the top of an eddy seems to erase the contemplation of past and future.

At first, I spent most of my time in what the Army Corps of Engineers refers to as Pool 2--the stretch of Mississippi that runs from Lock and Dam No. 1, just south of the Ford Bridge, to Hastings. Usually, I dropped the boat in at a ramp in Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul and motored upriver a half-mile to the area just below Lock and Dam No. 1.

It is not a handsome spot. Between the lock, the dam, and the retaining walls that hug the bluffs, there is an unseemly amount of concrete. Once-tree-lined banks are now held in place by stretches of riprap. Pop bottles and dead carp litter the shoreline. There is really only one picturesque element in the immediate vicinity: a nameless, heavily wooded island about the size of a city block. The island, which sits just below the dam, is occasionally flooded by high water. Usually it emerges no worse for the wear, save for the innumerable plastic bags and other flood detritus that wind up in the branches of its trees.

I return to this area regularly because I keep finding interesting fishing. In my early explorations, I spent most of my time dangling worms in the slack-water areas, a technique that produced a surprising variety and quantity of fish. I caught a lot of freshwater drum--a silvery deep-bodied fish that is typically 14 to 18 inches in length. Like many of the species that inhabit the Mississippi, the drum (also known by the amusing folk name "thunder pumper") is regarded as rough fish. The designation has no taxonomical significance; it merely serves as the antonym to game fish, the term for species that are highly regarded by anglers. But labels carry costs, and a surprising number of fishermen throw their freshly caught drum on the bank to rot, apparently satisfied that they are doing a public service by freeing the river of a rough fish. The treatment of the drum, like our treatment of the river itself, has a certain arbitrary quality.

As that first summer on the river wore on, I found myself stealing away whenever possible. Two, three, four times a week. Like most compulsions, mine grew stronger the more I fed it. In return, the river surrendered more of its secrets. By mid-summer, I was casting my eyes at the tailrace, the part of the dam where the falling water empties into the lower pool. I could see that fish-eating birds were drawn to the area, including great blue herons, egrets, night herons, belted kingfishers, and cormorants.

When the water is high, the tailrace at Lock and Dam No. 1 is a turbulent and somewhat problematic place to boat. In general, such places are notorious drowning zones, so boaters are discouraged (and sometimes prohibited) from exploring them. But at low water, the tailrace didn't seem particularly intimidating. And the frothy waters there, I soon learned, often hold a lot of fish. On some days, I could see huge schools of common carp swarming in the shallows, their big, wide bodies exposed as they scrounged for food in the boulders at the base of the dam. Channel catfish, smallmouth bass, quillbacks, white bass, yellow bass, and walleyes remained below the surface, but they all frequented the area. On a few days, I even landed some skipjack herring, a fabulous leaping fish long thought to have disappeared from the area.  

In December I talked to a researcher about the presence of hormone-disrupting compounds in municipal wastewater that empties into the river at Metro Sewage Treatment Plant, located just a few miles south of downtown St. Paul. The researcher mentioned that fish seemed to be drawn to the relatively warm water of the treated sewage during the cold winter months. That was all I needed to know. I boated to the plant, up the quarter-mile effluent channel, and spent a winter afternoon throwing jigs and minnows into the concrete outfall where the treated sewage emptied into the channel. As it turned out, the effluent was swarming with small walleyes--ready biters all. Among the hardcore winter anglers, the productivity of this spot was no secret. The particular brand of city fishing even has its own terminology: It is referred to as "fishing the crap."

I enjoyed fishing the crap. It was not foul, as you might expect. The air didn't stink, though there was a distinct and strange sweet smell. Herons and kingfishers were wintering on the banks of the channel. Mallards dabbled in the shallows. Bald eagles soared overhead. And fish were on the hook. Initially, I regarded the presence of all this wildlife in what seemed to be an unnatural part of the river as little more than an odd irony. That engineered features like the effluent channel and the dams attracted and concentrated living creatures certainly made it easy to catch fish and spot birds. Still, something seemed a little wrong about the whole undertaking. I mean, like it or not, I was spending my day fishing in sewage.


In 1805, when Lt. Zebulon Pike became the first American explorer to ascend the Mississippi gorge, he found a river entirely unlike the one that exists today. From the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers to St. Anthony Falls, Pike reported, he traversed "almost one continued rapid." All but one of the dozen islands he encountered on the eight-mile stretch are now gone--eroded away or submerged. "Ecologically, it was kind of a unique place. There was a lot of rock, and very little floodplain," notes John Anfinson, a historian with the National Park Service who has written about the river extensively. "At low water levels, you could wade across the river and it would be up to your knees. At high water levels, it became a roaring rapids."

At St. Anthony Falls, early explorers found an astonishing quantity of fauna. In one account, a since vanished, one-acre island was home to "a vast many eagles' nests." The eagles were no doubt drawn to the fish that migrated up to the falls. In one expedition in 1823, a soldier was said to have caught a 142-pound catfish at the falls--more than twice the size of any catfish caught in the state this century. It was most likely blue catfish, a species that was thought to have vanished from the state until earlier this year, when a fisherman on the Minnesota River landed a 52-pound specimen.

But while the rapids may have made for beautiful scenery and a lively fishery, early settlers regarded them as a nuisance. By the middle of the 19th century, St. Paul had established itself as the head of navigation on the Mississippi, recording 1,000 steamboat dockings in a single year. Even though the gorge was navigable under certain conditions, few tried. In a failed effort to cultivate Minneapolis as a port, city boosters paid a steamboat captain $200 to pilot his vessel to the falls; the Lamartine reached its destination, but the rocks and rapids dissuaded other steamboats from following in its wake. By the mid-1850s, civic leaders in Minneapolis and St. Anthony were clamoring for the construction of locks and dams.

As it turned out, the project was delayed for nearly 50 years, owing to the Civil War, economic depressions, and spats over money. Finally, in 1907, the Army Corps completed the first lock and dam in the river gorge: the Meeker Island Lock and Dam. Because of its design, however, the dam was useless to the suddenly burgeoning hydroelectric industry. In 1912, it was demolished to accommodate the construction of a replacement, a 30-foot-high dam that was better suited to generating power. In 1917, Lock and Dam No. 1 was finished. A few years later, the hydro-power rights were granted to the Ford Motor Company, which constructed a power house on the dam to run its factory. The project radically transformed the river upstream. The fast and shallow waters that Lieutenant Pike and other explorers once traversed were now gone, replaced by a large, slow-moving, and deep impoundment.  

In the years that followed, Minneapolis never became the port city some had hoped. The construction of the Upper and Lower St. Anthony Locks and Dams, completed in 1963 and 1957, opened the river to barge traffic above the falls. It didn't really matter, though; in practical terms, St. Paul remained the Mississippi's true shipping terminus. St. Paul now averages five times the barge traffic Minneapolis gets. (In recent years Minneapolis has averaged about two million tons annually, about half of its peak traffic in the mid-'80s. Part of it is a matter of simple physics. In the big river at St. Paul, barge operators can push up to 15 200-foot barges at a time. The narrow, winding river in Minneapolis can accommodate only two.)

Given such constraints, it's not surprising that the city-owned Upper Harbor Terminal, one of four commercial docks located above the falls in Minneapolis, has been a chronic money bleeder. Between 1990 and 1996, the city lost some $5.7 million on the facility, mostly on debt service related to construction. Since 1999, when the city paid off those bonds, the terminal has produced a modest annual profit of about $150,000 a year, according to Jim Forsythe of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. As a long-term investment it's likely a dead end. The city's Upper River Master Plan, commissioned in 1999 to explore how to make the best use of the river, recognized as much. The plan calls for the Upper Harbor Terminal and much of the other industry above the falls to be converted to housing and parks.

Which raises a question: If the Upper Harbor Terminal closes, why maintain the commercial waterway in Minneapolis? In the view of some critics, there is little justification as it stands. The Army Corps spends about $3 million annually to operate its three locks in Minneapolis. That's a lot of money, given that it serves just a handful of bulk commodity companies that deal in scrap metal, gravel, sand, and concrete, says Jeff Stein, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Taxpayers for Common Sense. In a 2000 report on the Corps, Taxpayers for Common Sense declared the Mississippi in Minneapolis one of the nation's top 25 "deadbeat waterways." "At St. Paul, there is still a considerable amount of traffic, so it's worthwhile to maintain that infrastructure," contends Stein. "But downtown Minneapolis just is not a commercial harbor. It's the vestigial tailbone of the system, which you would have hoped evolution would cut off."

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."

On a gray weekday morning, I drove to Hidden Falls to meet Davis in the flesh. Lanky with curly gray hair and bright green eyes, Davis oozes enthusiasm for the river. As we trolled upstream, he explained that he had spent most of his life around the Mississippi. On and off for a decade, he worked as a commercial fisherman near Wabasha, where he netted carp for sale on the East Coast gefilte fish market. In his younger days, Davis, who is 53, was also a hunter and sport fisherman--hobbies subsequently supplanted by berry picking and nature photography. "Same itch, different scratch," he explained. In 1987, he decided to put a biology degree to work and landed a job at the DNR, where he now specializes in the ecology of the Mississippi and, lately, in freshwater mussels.

The mussels are one reason Davis wanted to come to the Twin Cities. Historically, Pool 2--the stretch of river from Hidden Falls to Hastings--was home to some 40 species of mussel. Over the course of the past century, that number has dropped by half. The decline has several causes. Because mussels are immobile, Davis points out, they are especially vulnerable to degradation in water quality. And then there is the problem of commercial over-harvest. In the late 19th century, a German businessman named J.F. Boepple came to the U.S., where he discovered that the shells of many of the native mussels could be used to manufacture buttons. The button-cutting industry boomed for several decades before plastic replaced the shells as a prime button material. Boepple would not live to see that day; while prospecting for mussels in Indiana, he stepped on a sharp shell, likely one from the aptly named Pink Heelsplitter, developed an infection, and died. "Karmic justice," Davis said with a laugh as he recounted the tale. Whatever the case, the mussels' reprieve proved short-lived. Worsening pollution and a new industry--the cultured-pearl business--took their toll.  

As a result of all this, freshwater mussels are now widely regarded as North America's most endangered animal group. For the past few years, Davis has spearheaded an effort to reestablish some of the missing species, including the federally endangered Higgins eye mussel. To this end, he recently transported a dozen or so largemouth bass to Hidden Falls park and placed the fish in wire mesh cages in the river. The bass, he explained, carried the larvae of Higgins eye mussels in their gills. Over the course of the summer, Davis hoped, the mussels would mature, drop from the gills of the fish, and become the seed for a new population.

On our day on the river, Davis only wanted to see whether the cages had been carried away by the heavy currents from the summer rains. "They're out here somewhere. Twenty-two cages sitting on the bottom of the river," he said, peering into a depth finder in an effort to spot the cages. As it turned out, the search was futile. Davis didn't seem much concerned. He would simply come back with scuba gear and search the waters next month. A few weeks later, he did return, with a diver from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Together they located the cages, one of which they pulled from the water. After sifting through the mud, they found six juvenile Higgins eye mussels. "For the first time in 100 years, we can say that there are actually Higgins eyes in Pool 1," Davis exclaimed as he held up one of the tiny creatures.

When Davis first visited the gorge in the '70s, much of the river was a dead zone. When he came back about five years ago, he was shocked to see how much the water quality had improved. That got him thinking about other aspects of the river's potential. With the removal of the dams and some improvements to the city's storm-water sewers, Davis believes that the urban Mississippi could return to something resembling its natural state. "You aren't going to get back what once was. But with good hydrologists and good engineers, you could put back something with a lot of ecological value." That, he noted, is less possible in the parts of the river south of the confluence with the badly degraded Minnesota River.

As we moved up the river, Davis paused to imagine the gorge restored. He had no idea what the undertaking would cost. I volunteered that the removal of the Edwards Dam in Maine--a dam of comparable dimensions to the dam at Lower St. Anthony--cost around $3 million. Davis appeared encouraged by the figure. It doesn't seem impossible, he said, certainly no more daunting than the construction of locks and dams must have seemed in the 19th century, when Minneapolis city fathers cast a jealous eye on St. Paul. "Those people had a vision for the river. There were a lot of people who embraced it, and there were a lot of people saying, 'It's impossible,'" Davis said. "Well, hey, here's a vision for this century. The river doesn't have to be like this. And, you know, the corps is always looking for something to do. This could be a good project for them."

But at present that is not an argument the corps is willing to conduct. For the past two years, Davis, along with other representatives from the DNR, the corps, and several other public agencies have been holding "visioning meetings." The aim is to come to consensus on what should be done with Pool 1. As a precondition of those meetings, Davis says, participants were told that they had to assume that commercial navigation would remain on the river, meaning dam removal was off the table. "Basically, we weren't allowed to articulate an idea about the future," Davis complains. "Everybody just wants us to hold hands and hug." That said, Davis's contribution to the visioning group's draft report obliquely suggests a future in which "navigation infrastructure is no longer essential."

As we motored up Pool 1, we approached the vicinity where the corps and the kayaking folk hope to build their whitewater park. Davis pointed to the river's east bank, covered with big, flat slabs of limestone cap rock. The slabs, Davis explained, were dropped into the riverbed by the erosion of St. Anthony Falls thousands of years ago. Sometime in the past century, they were extracted from the river and placed on the bank by the corps to aid navigation and stabilize the bank. "I like how those rocks look," he said, his face lighting up. "They would have made some spectacular rapids, and they would have created a lot of habitat for a lot of creatures."  

He wants those rocks back in the river. So do I.

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