An update on the future of St. Anthony Falls

by Colleen O'Connor Toberman

Three current issues will help determine the future of St. Anthony Falls. (Photo: Steve Cronin)

There's a lot going on for St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis lately. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has signaled that, despite opposition, it still plans to discontinue ownership of the lock in the future. It remains unclear who currently owns and is responsible for the essential underwater wall that keeps the falls themselves from collapsing, but attention to this issue is growing. And upcoming community conversations will imagine how the area around the falls could become a place of healing and celebration at the river.

Here's an update on these major happenings around the only waterfall on the Mississippi River, and a few ways for you to get involved.

Army Corps disposition study

With the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock closed to boat traffic since 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying the lock's future through a process called a disposition study. You might recall that in early 2021 the Corps' draft study recommended transferring ownership of the lock to an unidentified private party, despite the lock still fulfilling critical public functions such as ensuring its drinking water supply. 

This plan received strong opposition from community members (including over 600 people who signed FMR's petition) and public officials. The Corps hasn't given a formal response to these comments, and its final disposition study hasn't been released. But for the last several months, we've been hearing from the Corps that it still plans to recommend an eventual ownership transfer despite knowing that Congress is unlikely to approve such an action.

FMR and our partners are working closely with our elected leaders to safeguard the public interest should the Corps continue to press its risky divestment plan. 

The Falls project launches community conversations

While we believe the Army Corps is the only appropriate party to own and manage the lock, some of the area surrounding the lock could be opened up for more community use. The Corps owns underused land that could be transferred to a new owner committed to creating more public access to the river, perhaps by creating a visitor center, museum or gathering space. 

The group Friends of the Falls formed to help make that happen. The organization recently signed an agreement with the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to negotiate a land transfer with the Corps. 

Friends of the Falls has been working to prioritize Indigenous leadership in determining what should happen to this land next. St. Anthony Falls, or Owamni in Dakota, is spiritually significant to the Dakota people and other Indigenous communities. The group's goal is to create a place of healing and celebration at the river.

Friends of the Falls is hosting a series of community conversations beginning February 15. All are invited to come connect with Native leaders, the design team and neighbors and discuss topics like restoration, programming, connectivity and economic opportunity. Learn more on Friends of the Falls' website.

Attention to cutoff wall building

Just upstream of the falls, an underground concrete wall has languished in obscurity despite its essential function. Known as a cutoff wall, the Army Corps built this 40-foot deep structure over 145 years ago to prevent St. Anthony Falls from eroding the last of the limestone river bottom and completely collapsing. 

The Corps' disposition study process raised some big questions about this wall. It hasn't been fully inspected since its construction in 1876 and its condition is unknown. The Corps claims it doesn't own the wall and isn't responsible for it, but can't say who else is. Should the wall collapse in the midst of this maelstrom of neglect and finger-pointing, the consequences for the Twin Cities could be catastrophic. (Read more about the cutoff wall.)

FMR board member Dr. John Anfinson has been leading the effort to raise awareness about the need to inspect the cutoff wall's condition, maintain it properly and determine who owns it.

We'll let our River Guardians know about future opportunities to advocate for or attend presentations about the cutoff wall. 

Become a River Guardian

Our River Guardians are the first to hear about events and action opportunities related to all of these issues as well as other issues that affect the Mississippi River. Become a River Guardian today to be alerted to steps you can take to protect the river. River Guardians are also invited to trainings, happy hours and other special FMR events.

Read more Land Use & Planning program updates.