Imagine unleashing the falls

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September 15, 2003 // UPDATED 11:04 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

What if the Mississippi River flowed freely

around Minneapolis, unbridled by the concrete

structures that currently dictate its


Breaching the Twin Cities\' three sets of

locks and dams has been an idea floating for

years, but some environmentalists say it\'s time

to consider it more seriously.

\"Rivers weren\'t meant to have dams slung

across them,\" says Dean Rebuffoni, a Sierra

Club volunteer and former Star Tribune environmental

reporter. \"There is something about

a running river that can\'t be equaled by a river

that has been impounded.\"

The Sierra Club says the $3 million in annual

federal subsidies to maintain the locks and

dams is no longer justified by the relatively

small amount of commercial barge traffic

going through Minneapolis.

The environmental group says restoring the

falls and rapids would be a boon to Downtown,

luring tourism to one of the river\'s

largest natural waterfalls. They also argue that

a return to a more natural state would boost

the environment and rejuvenate fish populations.

The Sierra Club\'s North Star Chapter calls

for an independent study on the economic and

environmental implications of restoring the

falls and the rapids below them.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers,

mandated by the federal government to maintain

the locks and dams, says Congress must

order such a study. Officials say they would

also need to find a local partner to share the

burden of paying for the study.

River restoration

It\'s difficult to predict what Downtown\'s

piece of the Mississippi would look like if the

Corps breached the dams.

Giant craggy slabs of limestone along the

rapids riverbed created that pre-industrial

falls, which dropped an estimated 70 feet

according to some early settlers, including

rapids. However, some of the slabs have been

eroded or been dredged since the 1830s, when

the mill era began. A concrete apron just

above the Stone Arch Bridge creates the effect


The rocks\' decay means that a restored

rapids might be somewhat milder and tamer

than in the past. But the steepness of the drop

off near the St. Anthony Falls would still create

significant rapids.

If locks and dams were breached, the water

level from the falls to Lock and Dam No. 1

would drop, says Dan Wilcox, a fisheries biologist

with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The outcome might be more unpredictable

downriver, by the historic Mill District. Wilcox

likened the riverscape near there to \"Swiss

cheese,\" noting a number of tunnels along the

shoreline built by the millers more than 100

years ago. If the river ran its course, the rock

near the St. Anthony Falls would \"erode fairly

quickly,\" Wilcox said.

John Anfinson, a river historian with the

National Park Service, said, \"at times the

water would flow very fast, at times very


Even though many of the river\'s original

boulders were removed for navigation, Anfinson

said an unrestrained river would produce

\"the steepest rapids anywhere along the Mississippi.\"

While predictions vary on the magnitude of

the rapids and waterfall, Rebuffoni envisions a

\"magnificent\" attraction. It would naturally

replicate what river enthusiasts are trying to

create with plans for a Whitewater Park

across from Downtown on the river\'s east


Supporters of the park plan have been

working to secure state and federal dollars for

a world-class kayaking park. When James

Tilton, a St. Paul attorney spearheading the

plan, considered the idea pitched by the Sierra

Club, he said, \"I believe we are kindred spirits,

but I would suggest the proposal is a generation


A full-river restoration would be even a larger

pull for canoers and kayakers, Rebuffoni


\"It would be the greatest whitewater in any

metropolitan area in the country,\" he said.

Meanwhile, boats would not be able to traverse

it and there\'s debate whether migratory

fish would make it over the falls, Anfinson


However, in late summer and fall, \"you\'d be

able to wade across the river above the falls -

it would barely be up to your knees.\"

Rebuffoni points to studies predicting that

200-300 acres of new floodplain would be

created by the restoration of the river\'s natural

flow patterns.

Others share a similar vision for the river\'s

future, such as Whitney Clark, executive director

of the Friends of the Mississippi River.

\"It really is a special place and one can

imagine a future in Minneapolis and St. Paul

for that matter where a restored falls, a

restored rapids could be just a preeminent

recreational and scenic asset - a feature that

would really distinguish the city as a very special

place,\" Clark said.

The Implications

While Clark shares the Sierra Club\'s sense

of awe over restoring the falls, he and others

note the economic consequences of moving


For one, Downtown\'s upper lock (Lock and

Dam No. 1) generates power for the St. Paul\'s

Ford Plant, one of the area\'s largest employers.

\"I don\'t see how you could propose restoration

without having some way to address the

economic impact to Ford Motor Company,\"

Clark said.

Kevin Bluhm, an Army Corps economist,

also says more trucks and trains would clog

highways and tracks if they must replace

barge traffic.

It would take 58 trucks to carry the cargo of

one barge, and 870 trucks to transport the

amount of cargo one tow can push, according

to a study by the Iowa Department of Transportation

cited by the Corps.

Bluhm also says the lock use has remained

steady and has slightly increased over the past

10 years. That has been the case for both

commercial and recreational users, he says.

Rebuffoni argues the river users could find

alternatives if the Mississippi returned to its

natural course. For one, he suggested sand

and gravel - by far the largest commodities

shipped through the locks and dams - could

be transported by land from sources closer to

the businesses that use them.

Alternative sources of energy, such as solar

power and wind power, could replace the

hydropower facilities, he suggested.

Ann Calvert, a senior project coordinator

for the city\'s Department of Community, Planning

and Economic Development (CPED),

says there are also historic preservation issues

to consider - not the river itself, but the

locks and dams many people consider historically

significant, she said.

\"It\'s a huge thing to study,\" Calvert said. \"It

would be hard to get your arms around.\"

While the scope of the project would be

massive, the Sierra Club says the idea is at

least worth examining in a series of public discussions.

\"My own feeling is that these [locks and

dams] just can\'t be economically justified.

They can\'t be environmentally justified anymore,\"

Rebuffoni said. \"Let\'s do something