Return of the rapids: Could the Upper Mississippi River run wild again?

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“A view of the Falls of St. Anthony,” the earliest known American magazine engraving of the Mississippi River in the Minneapolis area circa 1796 // Image via Granger Art

This idea—restoring the rapids to the Mississippi River Gorge—is an exciting prospect, to be sure. The rapids would be the only ones on the entire Mississippi River, made even more unique by their cosmopolitan location. Opportunities for recreation would abound. Flora and fauna would proliferate. Native species not seen in the river for decades—paddlefish, sturgeon, blue suckers, certain mussels—would return. Asian carp would finally have natural predators in said paddlefish, and would be deterred from swimming upstream by the fast-flowing rapids and remaining 49-foot-tall Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam. (“Asian carp are notoriously poor swimmers,” says Peter Sorenson, professor of fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology at the University of Minnesota, and lead researcher on invasive carp biology and management.)

As of right now, though, this is all speculation—a hypothetical picture of what the Mississippi River could look like if her rapids were restored. Such a feat would require removing Lock and Dam 1 (nee Ford Dam) and Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam, dredging some 1.5 million cubic yards of sediment, and reinstalling the limestone boulders that were long ago removed to improve navigation. It’s a lot, but it’s not impossible.

Since the closing of the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam on June 10, 2015, there has been much discussion about what could be done with the Mississippi River Gorge. Articles have speculated about what restoring the rapids could mean for the Twin Cities, geographically and economically. Ecologists have begun looking into how removing Lock and Dam 1 would impact their species of choice. And groups like American Rivers, a non-profit dedicated to protecting and restoring wild rivers, have begun seeking funding for research that would answer the million-dollar question: Could the Mississippi River’s rapids be restored? And, if so, should they be?

“This is not a new discussion,” says Olivia Dorothy, associate director of the Upper Mississippi River Basin for American Rivers. “The community has been talking about the value of this unique ecosystem and how it’s been hurt by the locks and dams for a long time. But is it feasible to return the river to its natural state? We just don’t know. It’s very much a dream, but it’s also very hypothetical at this point. We think it’s possible, but we can’t propose a plan until we have a plan.”

But creating a plan requires research; and research requires money. For entities like the National Park Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), it also entails obtaining Congress’ blessing. “A lot of people see us as being averse to these things, but we take action based on what Congress dictates,” says Patrick N. Moes, public affairs specialist for USACE, St. Paul District. “I want what’s best for the river, too. I grew up in Hastings. I grew up mesmerized by the Mississippi River. We’re working collectively where we can, but it would be better if there were other avenues to explore. But right now, there aren’t.”

Ecologists and river experts also face obstacles. Dr. Chris Lenhart, research professor at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Sorensen, invasive carp specialist, are currently seeking $221,000 for their Mississippi River Gorge Restoration Planning & Assessment Project. The project would span from 2017–2019 and research such things as sediment toxicity, the potential impacts of water level and riverbed elevation, fish passage, whether river velocities and distances would stop invasive carp movement, and where vegetation and parkland could be restored. The project would be a crucial step toward knowing what might happen if the rapids were restored, and it’s already backed by a wide array of intellectuals and experts.

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Many ecologists believe the rapids would bring with them the islands, wildlife, and landscape that once graced this portion of the river. Here, an idea of what the area around the University of Minnesota could look like. // Illustration by Brent Schoonover

“As the benefits of gorge restoration are made clear to the public and the potential issues are addressed, the likelihood of restoring the gorge will increase,” the proposal states. “If successful, the gorge restoration could begin in the near future.”

But without funding, it’s just a plan for a plan.

Mike Davis, program consultant for ecological and water resources for the Minnesota DNR, agrees that the potential benefits of a restored Mississippi River Gorge are many. Over the years, Davis has worked on numerous projects involving the restoration of the gorge. He’s given presentations, written proposals, and brainstormed hypothetical outcomes: Mississippi Gorge Regional Park, St. Anthony Falls International Kayak Competition, a giant sturgeon fishing contest.

But even Davis acknowledges that nothing about the concept is simple. “The potential benefits in terms of ecology and recreation are great,” Davis says. “But the economics need to be considered.”

Currently, the Corps employs 13 staff members to tend Lock and Dam 1 and the Lower and Upper St. Anthony Falls locks and dams (the Corps is still required to maintain Upper St. Anthony, in case of flooding). Average operating costs are $1.95 million per year. On the other hand, the cost of dam removals varies widely; every project involves a unique set of circumstances. These include such things as whether or not a hydropower company would need to be relocated and/or bought out; sediment toxicity levels; the size of the structures; whether barge traffic would be affected (most experts agree it wouldn’t be here, as barges no longer travel north of downtown St. Paul on the Mississippi); and what the restoration process would entail.

Next page: Doable, or just a dream?

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road, seeking out good food, drink, conversation, and fodder for her next story.