Restoring rapids to the Mississippi river gorge

FMR Position Statement

Re: American Rivers’ designation of the Mississippi River Gorge as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® 2018

Since the closure of the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in 2015, a new and promising vision has emerged for the Mississippi River’s only gorge: to remove the dams and bring back a free-flowing river with eight miles of swift and tumbling rapids from St. Anthony Falls to the Minnesota River confluence.

The gorge today is an urban sanctuary for many species of fish, birds and wildlife, but restoring the rapids could lead to dramatic improvement for the ecological health and diversity of the riverine system, expanded public parkland and floodplain habitat, new recreational opportunities, and potential long-term cost savings for U.S. taxpayers.

FMR is excited about this new opportunity to reimagine the gorge with dams removed and rapids tumbling. We are eager to engage in a thoughtful, science-based exploration and broad community discussion about the possibility of this new vision.

No doubt, such an undertaking would be enormous, involving myriad stakeholders over many years. And many questions must be addressed, including, among others: Will potential benefits outweigh the costs? Who will pay for this, and would it serve our community’s need for the equitable use of resources? Could there be negative environmental impacts like the upstream advancement of invasive carp or the release of polluted sediment from the river bottom?

This decision-making process will be complex and could take a decade or longer, allowing ample time to collaboratively and deliberately seek the answers to these and other questions.

“FMR strongly supports a robust and extensive exploration process with plenty of time for community members and other stakeholders to collaboratively raise questions, look at alternatives, examine evidence and seek solutions,” says Whitney Clark, FMR executive director.

Frequently Asked Questions

Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) is excited about this new opportunity to reimagine the gorge with dams removed and rapids tumbling. We are eager to engage in a thoughtful, science-based exploration and broad community discussion about the possibility of this new vision.

As our community considers dam removal there are many important questions that will need to be answered. We’ve put together this brief overview or FAQ to answer some of the most pressing.

What is the Mississippi River gorge?

The gorge is an 8.5-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that runs through the heart of the Twin Cities from St. Anthony Falls to the Minnesota River confluence. The only gorge on the entire length of the river was formed as St. Anthony falls eroded and receded over the last 10,000 years. It is characterized on both sides by steep limestone and sandstone bluffs, rugged ravines and a narrow floodplain. The area provides both floodplain and upland forest habitat, protected parkland and regional trails.

Before commercial navigation, limestone boulders filled some parts of the river channel to create approximately 8.5 miles of raucous, and at times impenetrable, rapids. By the turn of the 20th Century, plans were underway to impound the river with locks and dams, and the rapids were tamed into the reservoir or more lake-like river we see today.

Will removing the locks and dams impact shipping or commercial towboat navigation?

No. Congress closed the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock in 2015.  There are no more commercial docks in Minneapolis and barge navigation has ended.

Rowers, paddlers and commercial excursion boats use the gorge stretch of the river. How would water recreation change if the dams are removed and rapids restored?

The Mississippi River would no longer be impounded at two steady elevations. Instead, it would drop approximately 63 feet over the 8.5 miles from St. Anthony Falls to the Minnesota River confluence.

Rapids would prevent some types of activities, such as rowing, while facilitating others, such as whitewater kayaking, canoeing and rafting.

The extent of rapids restoration would have to be decided and would influence access for motorized boats. To recreate the rapids’ natural (pre-commercial navigation) structural conditions, rocks and boulders would need to be positioned in the channel. This would impede passage for vessels with deeper drafts. Seasonal water level changes and other factors would also influence access. 

What would happen to the hydroelectric generation plants if Dam #1 and the Lower St. Anthony Falls Dam are removed?

They would cease to operate.

The dams are owned and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) but the hydropower plants are owned by Brookfield Renewable, a private firm. If the ACOE decides to transfer ownership of the dams, it is unclear if Brookfield or another company or agency would be required or want to assume ownership and how maintenance costs would impact profitability.
Terminating Brookfield’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses to operate these plants could potentially require a buyout; the costs for that, if needed, are unknown.  

With the growth of wind and solar power, the 27 megawatts (L&D #1: 17.92 mw, Lower St. Anthony: 8.98 mw) of power these dams have the capacity to produce could likely be replaced by other renewables.

Will it impact our drinking water supply?

No. Water intake from the Mississippi River for drinking water is located upstream of St. Anthony Falls and would not be affected.

Is it really possible to remove the dams?

It will take time and research to fully answer this. Dam removal has happened throughout the U.S. but it can be very complex in urban areas — and these would be the largest dams ever removed in a major metro area. Certainly, it is possible to structurally remove the locks and dams, but the costs would be substantial and the environmental impacts of the deconstruction process would need to be thoroughly studied and reviewed by stakeholders and the public.

Are there potential cost savings to taxpayers if the dams are removed?

According to the Star Tribune, the ACOE spends approximately $2.4 million dollars annually to maintain lock and dam infrastructure in the gorge. Removal of these two dams would reduce ongoing operation and maintenance costs. However, the upfront costs to remove the dam and restore the rapids will be significant, so any net cost savings would likely not be realized until the longer term.

How much will it cost to remove the dams and restore the river channel?

This is not yet known, but it is likely to be expensive. This would be a massive project with many variables and options and would likely be tackled in phases over many years. A detailed feasibility study would be needed to examine a range of possible costs for each component or stage.

Who will pay for this?

We don’t know the answer to this yet, either. Projects of this size usually require federal government funding. These structures were built and are owned and maintained by the federal government. Most likely, federal, state, local and private sources would need to be tapped to accomplish a project of this scale.

Will removing the dams help advance our community’s goals for the river and parks to be more equitable?

The gorge is bordered by neighborhoods in south Minneapolis and the west end of St. Paul that have benefited from proximity to Mississippi River parkland preserved over a century ago. Meanwhile, river-adjacent neighborhoods in north and northeast Minneapolis have been cut off from their riverfront by industry, highways and aging infrastructure. Investing in the “Above the Falls” area is a top priority for the City of Minneapolis, and FMR has worked for years on behalf of a healthier and more accessible north and northeast Minneapolis riverfront. Removing dams in south Minneapolis could compete with the funding needed for new parks, trails and community amenities along the river north of downtown.

What are the next steps in this process?

Right now the ACOE is doing a disposition study for Lock & Dam #1, Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock & Dam and Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock (but not the USAF dam, which is owned and maintained by Xcel Energy). The study will examine several options, ranging from continuing operations as they are now; turning the facilities over to other federal, state or local entities; to removing the locks permanently. There will be public meetings about the study in late-April or early-May. As soon as we hear about them, we will post them on the FMR events calendar and include them in our e-newsletter, Mississippi Messages.

For more information:
Irene Jones
River Corridor Program Director
651.222.2193 x11 - office (Monday-Thursday)
ijones@fmr.org