What's going on with Twin Cities locks and dams?
You may have seen stories in the news about the future of the Twin Cities' locks and dams on the Mississippi River, but it can be tough to get the full picture.
In the 20th century, we made major public investments to transform the river for commercial and industrial purposes in the Twin Cities. In the 21st century, some of that old infrastructure is no longer useful, presenting us with an opportunity to reimagine our relationship to the river again.
A key part of that is one momentous decision we need to make in the next few years: Should we remove dams on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis and St. Paul?
It's a big question with big implications. As this issue is studied, FMR is working to make sure that community members have access to quality information and ways to be involved at key decision-making points.
What we do here will affect the Twin Cities and all communities downstream and may have an even larger ripple effect than we can imagine. Large-scale dam removal has never been done in a setting as urban as the Twin Cities. The Mississippi River’s global prominence only adds to the significance of this potential opportunity and might inspire other communities to reconsider the future of their rivers, too.
Which locks and dams are we talking about?
There are three locks and dams in the Minneapolis and St. Paul city limits.
The first two are roughly a half-mile apart on either side of the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis.
The Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam is the uppermost dam on the Mississippi River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the lock, which has been closed to boat traffic since 2015 to reduce the spread of invasive carp (learn more about FMR's involvement). St. Anthony Falls flows over a concrete dam and spillway owned by Xcel Energy and used for hydropower production.
Just downstream of Upper St. Anthony Falls is the Lower St. Anthony Falls lock and dam. The Corps owns both the lock and dam at Lower St. Anthony Falls and leases the hydropower generation rights for the dam.
Eight miles further downstream, the Ford lock and dam (known officially as Lock and Dam No. 1) spans Minneapolis and St. Paul near Minnehaha and Hidden Falls parks. The Corps owns this lock and dam and leases the hydropower generation rights for the dam, which originally powered the nearby Ford Motor Company assembly plant.
Click the yellow dot and zoom in to see a photo of the locks and dams mentioned in this article.
What should stay? What might go?
These three structures were originally built to facilitate commercial shipping. These days, commercial river traffic ends in downtown St. Paul. The Corps is studying the future of these three locks and dams because they no longer fulfill their original intended purpose. They do still help support several important aspects of our community's river use — including flood control, water supply management and hydropower generation — but they also fragment wildlife habitat and alter the river's natural flow.
We believe that the Corps should continue to own, maintain and manage the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam, but that the Lower St. Anthony Falls lock and dam and Ford/Lock and Dam No. 1 are prospective candidates for removal.
The Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam serve many essential functions at this time. They manage the river’s upstream water levels to provide reliable drinking water to one million Twin Cities residents, block the upstream spread of invasive carp, and prevent the collapse of St. Anthony Falls itself.
But removing the Lower St. Anthony Falls and Ford locks and dams could reap big benefits. Removing these two dams would reconnect 39 miles of the Mississippi River. It could restore the types of rapids and floodplain habitats upon which many rare, threatened and endangered species rely upon, including mussels and paddlefish. And the river would become shallower, with a faster flow, enhancing recreational activities from paddling to shoreline fishing.
However, dam removal also has potential drawbacks. Costs to remove these structures and restore the river bottom will be significant. We need to ensure that such investments don’t foreclose possibilities for other priorities, such as creating new parks and river connections in marginalized neighborhoods. While new recreational opportunities could draw many users, some current flatwater river activities, such as rowing, would need to move elsewhere, potentially resulting in significant relocation costs for rowing facilities and programs.
Ford and Lower St. Anthony Falls dams also currently generate hydropower, though at a modest enough level that replacing their output from other renewable energy sources wouldn’t be difficult.
What's happening now?
Each of the three locks is undergoing a "disposition study" to help the Corps assess whether the structures should remain in place, and if so, who should be responsible for owning, maintaining and operating them.
The Corps is finalizing a disposition study for the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock. The draft study (released in February 2021) proposed moving the lock into private ownership, which would threaten the management of the Twin Cities' water supply. This proposal received significant community opposition from FMR, local government agencies, river and environmental groups, business leaders, and hundreds of individuals. The final report is anticipated in summer/fall 2021; we hope it will include a Corps commitment to owning, managing and maintaining the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock.
After the Upper St. Anthony Falls study is complete in late 2021, the Corps will move on to study Lower St. Anthony Falls and Ford/Lock and Dam No. 1.
There will be an initial public input opportunity to help define the study's scope. FMR will advocate for it to include a thorough consideration of dam removal. The draft completed study will likely be released for public comment sometime in 2023. (To be notified of opportunities to weigh in, sign up to be a River Guardian below.)
Miles to go...
These studies are just early steps in what will likely be a long process. Congressional authorization would be required for any significant changes to lock and dam ownership, modification or removal. Any of these outcomes could also be costly; funds would have to be assembled. And a big step like dam removal might also require further study and community engagement after the Corps' initial study process. Should the dams be slated for removal, it could easily be 10 or even 20 years before structural work begins.
The Mississippi River has also been heavily altered to support human activity and industrial traffic. Removing dams won't return the river to its "natural" state without extensive associated work to restore the shoreline and river bottoms, replace boulders removed from the channel, and additional work that we may not be able to forecast quite yet.
Removing the Lower St. Anthony Falls lock and dam could result in a shallower river and rapids below the Franklin Avenue bridge and throughout the Minneapolis and St. Paul River Gorge. (Rendering by John Koepke, Samuel Geer, and Michael Keenan, Faculty of the Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Minnesota and Principals @ Urban Ecosystems LLC)
As discussed above, the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam are not good candidates for removal at this time. FMR supports the Corps' continued ownership and management of this lock. We also support The Falls initiative, which will help create a community gathering place and restore public access to the river on "excess" Corps land that is no longer essential for lock operations.
We're eager to see a robust scientific review and community engagement process regarding the future of the other two locks and dams with plenty of time for community members and other stakeholders to collaboratively raise questions, look at alternatives, examine evidence and seek solutions. Dam removal is an intriguing possibility, but it needs more examination. Together, we can best chart a course to protect and restore the health of our river and all the communities and wildlife that depend on it. Read our full position on dam removal.
This process will unfold over many years. To keep up with the latest and hear about opportunities to get involved, check out our relevant blog updates or become an FMR River Guardian. For more details, contact FMR River Corridor Program Director Colleen O'Connor Toberman, firstname.lastname@example.org, 651.222.2193 x29.