Power paradox: clean hydropower versus riverfront beauty

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March 15, 2004 // UPDATED 9:47 am - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Park Board poised to vote on Mill Ruins power plant that could reduce St. Anthony Falls flow

A proposed $10 million, 3.2-megawatt hydroelectric plant that could reduce St. Anthony Falls' flow will reach a critical Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board vote as early as Wednesday, March 17.

Crown Hydro LLC needs to secure a Park Board lease by April 13 or it will miss a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) deadline. FERC licenses power plants.

The plant would go in the upstream end of the new Mill Ruins Park, on the river's west bank. The Park Board will hold a public hearing March 17 and take a final vote April 7, said Park Board President Jon Olson.

The vote poses a significant dilemma for some Park Board commissioners.

The project would bring new revenue to the Park Board's depleted budget. It would promote renewable energy. It would add to the park's historical interpretation. (The Minneapolis Brush and Electric Company, one of the nation's first hydroelectric power plants, started in 1882 near the falls.)

The project would also drain up to 1,000 cubic feet per second from St. Anthony Falls spillway, which could detract from riverfront aesthetics; Crown Hydro acknowledges that the diversion would mean 36 more days each year that the river's flow is less than the Park Board's preferred level. The excavation also would have unknown impacts on the area's archeology.

The project also will send more water through the tailraces (side channels that return water to the river), requiring safety barriers for park visitors where none were planned.

A 50-year decision

The Park Board has swung back and forth on the project. In a March 6, 2003 motion to FERC, the Park Board protested Crown Hydro's relocation from the privately owned Crown Roller Building, 150 5th Ave. S. to the Mill Ruins site. The plant could produce 10 to 15 percent more power on the new site, supporters say, but the Park Board protested in part because of increased water flow through the historic tailraces, near planned walking paths.

"This increase in water depth and velocity will compromise public safety and the ability of the public to interact closely with the tailrace canal, which is one of the central features of the park," it said.

Nearly a year after the Park Board sent that letter, Assistant Superintendent Judd Rietkerk outlined a proposed 50-year lease with Crown Hydro at the board's March 3 Planning Committee meeting.

Carol Kummer is one of the few Park Board Commissioners with a strong opinion on Crown Hydro. She called it a "win-win" proposal and said she was ecstatic about it. "Waterpower is about as green as it gets," she said.

Bob Fine said he was undecided but leaning towards supporting the project. Marie Hauser said Crown Hydro had challenges that were "not necessarily insurmountable, but worrisome," noting the increased water speed through the historic tailraces.

Olson, Walt Dziedzic and Annie Young said they were undecided. Efforts to reach the other three Commissioners after the meeting were unsuccessful.

Olson said the lease would require a two-thirds majority, or six of nine votes, because the 50-year lease with a second 50-year option "is basically a sale."

"It could go either way," Olson said.

Young, a Green Party member, staunchly supports alternative energy. When it comes to Crown Hydro, she called herself a "mugwump," a 19th-century term for "fence-sitter."

"These are 50-year, 100-year decisions," Young said. "I am worried about the level of water over the falls. All these new $1 million homeowners are going to be really pissed if the water changes very much."

Run of the river

Crown Hydro proposes building an underground powerhouse on a grassy area immediately upstream of Portland Avenue, in the footprint of the old Cataract Mill.

The Crown Hydro plant would require reopening the old "headrace" in Mill Ruins Park, a channel diverting above-the-falls water off the Mississippi to the powerhouse. The water would drop through the turbines, generate electricity and return to the river below the falls through the tailraces.

It is called the "Run of the River" operation. It means Crown Hydro doesn't have a dedicated pool of water to draw on, such as a dam has; it takes what water is available on a given day. Depending on the water flow, it could generate enough power for up to 3,200 homes, supporters say.

The headrace canal would cut access to the Stone Arch Bridge. Crown Hydro would spend $400,000 to $500,000 to extend the Stone Arch Bridge 132 feet, connecting it to West River Road and passing over the headrace, said Richard Greenlee, project engineer.

Water over the dam

How much water needs to cover the 425-foot-wide concrete St. Anthony spillway so that it gives a reasonable impression of a falls?

It depends on whom you ask.

The Park Board has twice passed a resolution saying that the spillway needed 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water for aesthetic purposes.

Crown Hydro would divert up to 1,000 cfs -- and shut down automatically only if spillway water dipped to 300 cfs.

Xcel's St. Anthony Falls plant, which uses up to 4,000 cfs, is getting relicensed. FERC and Xcel agree that 100 cfs, a two-inch-high flow, is adequate for aesthetic purposes.

Rietkerk said he is not comfortable with Crown Hydro's spillway impact. He has asked the Board to consider whether it wants to keep its resolution setting 2,000 cfs as a minimum flow or change it.

Crown Hydro representatives handed out a FERC statement that said, "maintaining a 2,000 cfs flow over the Falls, as recommended by the Park Board, would be beyond Crown Hydro's control because under existing conditions, average flows over the Falls are less than 2,000 cfs during eight months of the year."

Kummer said the Board shouldn't set water flow minimums.

"Have you ever heard of anything so crazy?" she said. The 2,000 cfs flow "doesn't happen anyway. Mother Nature doesn't listen to our resolution. ... Why that Board passed a resolution like that and why we are worried about it is a mystery to me."

Archeological digs

The Cataract Mill, built in 1859 and torn down in 1928, was the west bank's first private flour mill, according to an article in the Minnesota Archeologist.

Crown Hydro will have to have a plan on what to do when it uncovers Cataract or other mill ruins. The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) will review and comment to FERC on Crown Hydro's plans, said Dennis Gimmestad, an SHPO compliance officer.

SHPO had concerns about the development's impact on the old mill foundations, he said, as well as whether the design is appropriate for an historic site.

A Crown Hydro representative said the company did not have a finished powerhouse design, but it would be underground and unobtrusive, with a viewing window so people could look in. The project would recreate part of the city's history -- the area was an industrial area, he said.

Despite SHPO's worries, Gimmestad said, it "hasn't closed the door."

Kathleen Swenson, the Park Board's Mill Ruins Park coordinator, called the Crown Hydro plant "disastrous" for park programs. The park is a work in progress, and the next phase includes more public access to areas adjacent to the ruins, she said.

"It won't be a beautiful recreation area anymore; it will be an industrial area," Swenson said. "People are not going to want to come on walking tours," she said.

Long-term park plans included having the public help excavate areas, such as the Cataract Mill, Swenson said.

She questioned whether the hydro project met the Park Board's mission to preserve and protect parkland.

The deal

Crown Hydro faces two deadlines. FERC gave Crown Hydro a 90-day deadline to negotiate a Park Board lease. It ends April 13.

Missing that deadline would not kill the project, said Crown Hydro attorney Peter Grills, because the company could apply for an extension.

Under the proposed lease, Crown Hydro would pay the Park Board $30,000 a year, Rietkerk said.

That is less than the Park Board expects to get on its new paddleboat lease with SkipperLiner. It is well shy of the approximately $300,000 annual payment the Board sought from Crown Hydro last fall, based on its standard utility encroachment fee, according to a 2003 interview with Mill Ruins Park Project Manager Rachel Ramadhyani.

The headrace canal also would eliminate a 37-stall metered parking lot that generated roughly $8,500 in 2003, a particular concern of Dziedzic, who said many people use those meters to park for their daily river walks.

The lease has some sweeteners. The Park Board would get a one-time $100,000 payment, Rietkerk said. If the plant exceeds its 20 million-kilowatt annual target, the Park Board would receive 15 percent of the excess revenue. (The Park Board does not have an estimate on potential payouts, Rietkerk said.)

Grills said the project would add $1 million in park amenities; details are being worked out. Greenlee said the major pieces include the Stone Arch Bridge extension and a several-hundred-thousand-dollar plank road extension on West River Road.

Other add-ons include landscaping, lighting, interpretive signs and/or a gazebo/shelter, Greenlee said.

A second deadline may be more critical, if longer term. Crown Hydro must start producing energy by Jan. 1, 2006 or it loses a key state renewable-energy subsidy worth 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour or approximately $300,000 a year, said Tom Griffin, a project backer. "We can't make the economics of this project work without the subsidy," he said.

That means Crown Hydro has less than two years to build the plant and make it run.