By Dan Wilcox
Dams are built structures that get old. Rivers are powerful, constant and patient. Remember your images of free-flowing rivers and waterfalls and the words of Wendell Berry, “Men may dam it and say that they have made a lake, but it will still be a river. It will keep its nature and bide its time, like a caged animal alert for the slightest opening. In time, it will have its way; the dam, like the ancient cliffs, will be carried away piecemeal in the currents.”
On the evening of Sept. 7, I was disturbed to see a small group of dam advocates passing out a brochure inside the River Falls Public Library during a Kinni Corridor Tech Talk meeting. That was most inappropriate at a City-sponsored educational meeting about the future of the Kinni. The brochure is replete with misinformation.
The brochure describes the two hydropower reservoirs in River Falls as lakes. They are not lakes. They are impoundments. They do not provide a “unique natural environment.” As an aquatic ecologist with 40 years of professional experience I can assure you that the dams harm the river environment. The impoundments are nearly filled with sediment and no longer provide a “sediment basin for the settling of sand brought down by the upper Kinni and the outflow of 25 city storm drains.” They are not “drawing water from the bottom of the dam to help cool the summer stormwater runoff and in turn, cool the lower Kinni.”
The fact is that temperature monitoring has demonstrated that the impoundments warm the river water during the summer, raising the water temperature of the lower Kinni by about 4°F, stressing the cold-water river ecosystem and trout.
The brochure recommends dredging the two hydro impoundments to make them deeper. “You don’t throw away your vacuum cleaner because the bag is full.” Having worked for decades with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I know that dredging and dredged material placement is very costly and difficult.
Floating fountains in the impoundments would not aerate and cool the water but would in fact further warm the river. The brochure claims that the electrical generating revenues exceed the costs of maintaining the dams and that this is a free power source. The City of River Falls records indicate that this is nearly a wash. The costs of relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, costs of improvements to the dams to comply with environmental mitigation requirements and future dam rehabilitation costs would put the dams into the economic loser category for the City.
This is certainly not free energy.
The dams currently generate less than 2 percent of the electricity used in the City. That power can be readily replaced from wind and solar sources. The brochure claims that the Junction Falls dam is a waterfall. It is not a waterfall. It is an ugly concrete structure that has little water going over it most of the time.
Removing the dams and restoring the river would provide a series of rapids and pools through the middle of the City. The Kinni was once impounded by a dam at Division Street. That dam is no longer there and the reach of the river upstream is beautiful and free-flowing again.
The drained impoundments could become excellent park areas with walking trails along the river. People could go kayaking or trout fishing along downtown River Falls. Stormwater infiltration ponds could provide roosting areas for waterfowl. River Falls could become renowned for its cascading scenic river, rather than for its scummy impoundments.
Speakers at the recent Kinni Corridor Tech Talk emphasized the social and economic benefits of dam removal and river restoration for communities. We should envision a future Kinni without the dams.
As the late Bruce Foster said, “To do the right thing at the right time is a wonderful thing.”