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

ReturnRapids3WEB

A fisherman posts up near the Franklin Avenue Bridge and takes advantage of the influx of sturgeon, paddlefish, and other native species that would likely return to the Upper Mississippi River if Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam and Lock and Dam 1 were removed // Illustration by Brent Schoonover

Removing a major dam isn’t a new idea: 185 dams have been removed in the United States since 2013, including the largest dam-removal project in the world—the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams, in Washington—in 2014. Removing those dams, 120-feet-high and 108-feet-high, respectively, took 20 years of lobbying, planning, researching, and negotiating, and cost $26.9 million. The questions asked prior to their removal were the same as those currently being asked here: What would happen to all the sediment? How would native fish species respond? Would local water supplies be affected?

But they did it. From 2011 to 2014, using plans formulated by the world-renowned St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, in Minneapolis, the two dams were disassembled. Sediment was gradually released, water-treatment facilities were constructed, and piece by piece the Elwha River was returned to its natural state. The results were astounding. Redistributed sediment formed new riverbanks, sandbars, wildlife habitat, and 70 acres of beach. Steelhead trout and salmon began migrating upstream and spawning, which in turn attracted birds eager to eat them and their eggs.

It’s estimated that the Elwha River restoration project will cost around $324.7 million. While the initial expenses may seem hefty, American Rivers reports that most dam removals actually save money in the long run. No dam means no maintenance, safety repairs, staffing costs, or direct and indirect expenses associated with fish and wildlife protection. Plus, subsequent recreation opportunities—fishing, kayaking, rafting—and the businesses they attract can lead to serious economic benefits.

No one knows exactly what it would cost to remove Lock and Dam 1 and/or Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam because as of yet no group has received the funding to fully research the hypothetical project. One researcher, however, did look into what the potential economic benefits of the dam removals could be. Using such criteria as the anticipated number of visitors, size of the waterfall, river flow data, visual appeal of the area, and the proximity of two major cities, Steven R. Greseth estimated that a restored St. Anthony Falls and Mississippi River Gorge could bring upwards of $900 million to the Twin Cities annually.

In addition to economics, something else that needs to be considered when discussing the restoration of the gorge is the fact that the Mississippi River of 2016 looks nothing like the Mississippi River of the early 1800s. A lot has been done to the river in the last two centuries. It might be too late.

3_Worker build an apron at the falls_1866_image from Minnesota Historical Society_

Workers build a wooden incline, called an apron, over the falls in 1866 to prevent logs and freezing temperature from cracking the limestone and causing further retreat. A flood destroyed the apron in 1867. // Photo by Beal’s Art Gallery via Minnesota Historical Society

Before all the dredging, damming, and rearranging, the river’s elevation dropped 111 feet from St. Anthony Falls to where Hidden Falls Regional Park is today. Its path included a narrow gorge, limestone boulders, islands, and wild white-water rapids. Real-estate developer George Merrick described his trip through the gorge in the late 1850s as being “very crooked, winding about between reefs of solid rock, with an eight- to 10-mile current. […] White water would pile us up on the next reef below, and the next six miles turned and twisted among the reefs.”

2_St. Anthony Falls, East Side_1865_courtesy Minnesota Historical Society_Description--Photograph of the east side of St. Anthony Falls showing a sawmill in the foreground and the Winslow House in the upper left

A photograph of the east side of St. Anthony Falls circa 1865, showing a sawmill in the foreground and the Winslow House in the upper left // Image via Minnesota Historical Society

Those rapids have long since disappeared. Ever since the first sawmill was built near St. Anthony Falls in 1821, the Upper Mississippi River has endured the construction of many more sawmills and flour mills, a disastrous attempt in 1869 to build a tunnel beneath the falls (which led to their collapse and subsequent rescue by the USACE), and numerous locks, dams, and other structures that have made it the sediment-heavy, slow-moving beast it is today.

“We’ve modified the river so much that we don’t have natural flows anymore,” says Dr. Brad Perkl, chief archaeologist at the USACE, St. Paul District.

As Alexis C. Madrigal put it in a 2011 Atlantic Monthly article: “The Mississippi no longer fits the definition of a river as ‘a natural watercourse flowing toward an ocean, a lake, a sea, or another river.’ Rather, the waterway has been shaped […] to suit human needs.”

Another complication regarding the restoration of the gorge is figuring out who owns what. “The challenge with the river is that no one owns it,” says Moes, of the USACE. “At the end of the day, Mother Nature will always have the 51-percent vote. But the reality is that within this corridor, you have National Park Recreation Area, the Coast Guard, FERC (Federal Energy Regulating Commission), and all the natural resource commissions—the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNR, city parks boards. There are a lot of agencies that have a stake in it.”

Adding to that list are the dams’ hydropower-plant owners. Xcel Energy operates the one at Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam. Toronto-based Brookfield Renewable Energy Group owns both the Lower St. Anthony Falls Hydroelectric Project and the hydropower plant at Lock and Dam 1; its FERC license at the latter is good through October 31, 2034. Both Brookfield properties would have to be removed along with the dams to get the rapids back, and the company either paid out or moved to new locations. Another option would be replacing Brookfield’s use of hydropower with an alternative green-energy source, like solar. Each of these outcomes has successfully played out with other hydropower companies around the country, but as of right now, the situation is just another hurdle to consider here in Minnesota.

While Congress would have the final say in closing Lock and Dam 1 and the Lower St. Anthony, as it did with the closing of the Upper St. Anthony, it’s the public who really holds the power, says John O. Anfinson, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Mississippi River National Recreation Area, and former district historian for the USACE, St. Paul District. “Everything that has happened to this river—every major government levee, every hydropower plant, every navigation project—has happened because people have pushed to make it happen,” Anfinson says. “If they were able to push in the past to make things happen, are we so incompetent today that we can’t do the same?”

Resurrecting the rapids would not be easy. But even with all the unknowns and obstacles, there are just as many, if not more, potential benefits. Instead of 30 feet of sediment and a flooded riverbed, there could be flowing rapids and acres of parkland. Dozens of native species could return. The trickle of leisure boats and occasional kayaker could be replaced by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts from around the world.

Beneath the river humankind has created is the river nature intended. The dams have been in charge of the Mississippi River Gorge for over a hundred years. Perhaps it’s finally time for Mother Nature to reclaim her reign.

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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.