An opportunity we can’t afford to miss, again

Dr. Michael S. Page

Today, we have the opportunity to completely restore the Kinnickinnic River and Junction Falls waterfall in the heart of our community through removal of the last two remaining dams in the Kinni.

In 1966 our community had an opportunity, but we missed it. And at a time when Northern States Power (NSP) actually gifted their three dams in the Willow River and all of the land surrounding their facility to the State of Wisconsin! That land today is Willow River State Park, which exists because NSP looked at their bottom line, the liability and expenses of their dams, and they grasped the opportunity to give away their dams to avoid significant expenses.

What did we do at that time? We rebuilt our Lower “Powell Falls” Dam at an expense that is as of yet unaccounted for in the City’s financial analysis. Can you imagine what River Falls would be like today if we had instead decided to restore the Kinni over 50 years ago?

NSP saw an opportunity in 1964, and they took it, and today we know full well the value of the Willow River State Park, as well as the great expense associated with maintaining dams.

Two of the dams have been removed at a fraction of the cost of their anticipated repairs, and also at a fraction of the estimated costs for their removal. Prior to their removal, the estimated costs were $622,000 and $1.1 million for the Willow Falls Dam and the Mounds Dam, upon completion of their removal the final costs of removal were only $450,000 and $170,000 respectively.

This is a trend seen throughout dam removals, of inflated estimated costs anticipated prior to the removal of a dam.

One of the dams, Willow Falls Dam, sat on top of the Willow Falls waterfall. Its removal in 1992 restored the Willow Falls waterfall that we see today, which is now the park’s most popular attraction. Prior to removal of the dam, the falls area below the dam was off limits to visitors.

In 1988 we had an opportunity, and again we missed it. With the licensing of our facility for the first time we were inclined to invest further, rehabilitating the Upper “Junction Falls” Dam for an expense of nearly $900,000 which has not yet been fully accounted for in the City’s financial analysis.

Again, can you imagine if we had enjoyed the last 30 years with a free-flowing Kinnickinnic River coursing through town with the restored Junction Falls waterfall below the Winter Street bridge?

In both cases, we failed to grasp the potential of an immense opportunity, and instead we chose to further invest in our facility, for a net financial loss to date when compared to simply purchasing the power instead.

According to the City of River Falls’ “2016 Committed Net Position Hydros Analysis,” our community has lost $93,781 from 1986 through 2016 compared to revenues that could have been derived through simply purchasing the power, rather than generating the power ourselves at the expense of the degradation of the Kinnickinnic River.

We’ve done this in order to generate 1-2 percent of the electricity our community consumes at the expense of the health of the Kinnickinnic River, and at the expense of the opportunity cost of what a fully restored Kinnickinnic River and Junction Falls waterfall could have been for our community.

Our community has missed the boat on this opportunity. Even with the preliminary nature of the City’s current financial analysis we clearly see that our investments have been a poor financial choice for our community. If we knew in 1988, what we know today, we never would have rehabilitated the Upper Dam, we would have instead chosen to remove the dams and restore the Kinnickinnic River in its entirety.

We cannot afford to miss this opportunity again, or our children will be having this same conversation in another 30 years!

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