Not just water over the dam

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September 15, 2003 // UPDATED 11:04 am - April 30, 2007
By: Mississippi's might
Mississippi's might

by Scott Russell

Call it a water competition, or

perhaps the Mississippi River

Dance.

Three hydro power plants - one

existing and two proposed - want

to divert some of the Mississippi flow

through Downtown. However,

hydropower comes at a price - and

not just on your utility bills.

Water sent through turbines can

reduce recreational opportunities

and even the river\'s beauty. City leaders

are concerned there might not be

enough water flowing over historic

St. Anthony Falls to make it look like

a falls. Meanwhile, canoe and kayak

enthusiasts need a torrent, not a

trickle, to create a whitewater park

nearby.

It\'s a balancing act.

The three hydro plants would produce

only a fraction of the region\'s

energy demand - at most, roughly 2

percent of Xcel\'s Prairie Island

nuclear plant output. Yet the hydro

plants are conveniently located in

the middle of what energy wonks

call \"the load center.\" Hydropower is

renewable; every kilowatt produced

means fewer greenhouse gas emissions

from coal-burning plants or

other sources. And it provides a set

of jumper cables; one advocate noted

that if a blackout hits, power companies

use hydropower to restart the

electric grid.

However, the river\'s nonenergy

uses are gaining importance.

The river and the falls are central

to the city\'s history as a lumber and

mill town; the Minneapolis Park and

Recreation Board is developing Mill

Ruins Park on the riverfront, excavating

old tailrace canals that powered

the mills. The Minnesota Historical

Society just opened the Mill City

Museum. Meanwhile, new condo

owners are paying big rents and hefty

property taxes to enjoy a picturesque

view, with the proposed whitewater

park another riverfront lure.

Some months, the Mississippi is

mighty enough to satisfy all comers.

The Mississippi\'s flow can become so

powerful - above 40,000 cubic feet

per second (cfs) - that the Army

Corps of Engineers halts river traffic

as unsafe. On April 15, 2001, the

spring thaw sent 65,046 cfs through

the lower falls, according to the

Corps. The river hit 91,000 cfs in the

flood of 1965, the highest on record,

a Corps spokesperson said.

However, low flows and anemic

falls, typically in the summer, coincide

with peak tourist season at the

Stone Arch Bridge and the historical

sites.

On Sept. 3, the river was at 2,300

cfs. For comparison, Xcel\'s St. Anthony

plant alone would typically use

4,000 cfs, a company spokesperson

said. A new plant, Crown Hydro,

could also draw 500 to 1,000 cfs from

the falls.

The water battle is as old as the

mills, said Steve Lenhart, lockmaster

for the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock

and Dam.

\"Everybody wants the water. That

is part of the big history of the falls,\"

he said.\" At one time, there were 40

mills here at the same time. Can you

imagine if you had 40 mills here?

Who gets the water? Who doesn\'t?

Who goes home? Who goes out of

business?\"

\"Here we are again - low water,\"

Lenhart said. \"Every time there is

low water, people say, \'Oh, geez, the

falls are dried up.\' \'Oh, we can\'t generate

electricity.\' \'Oh, we can\'t lock

boats.\' \'Oh, Mill Ruins Park doesn\'t

have any flow going though it; it is

getting stale.\' Everybody wants it.\"

Inside this issue is a primer on the

various power plant plans and possible

effects on other uses.