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.
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
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
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.
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,\"
Kevin Bluhm, an Army Corps economist,
also says more trucks and trains would clog
highways and tracks if they must replace
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