Lawmakers approve $1M to shed light on St. Anthony Falls’ hidden hazard, the cutoff wall

St. Anthony Falls during spring high waters

Minnesota will provide $1 million to study the below-ground cutoff wall located just upstream of St. Anthony Falls. Read how all FMR priorities fared this legislative session.

We'll soon know a lot more about one of the state's most crucial, but overlooked, pieces of infrastructure: the hidden cutoff wall underneath St. Anthony Falls

FMR initially asked the Legislature for $750,000 to fund a study of this underground dam, which was built in 1876 to preserve the fragile falls-area geology but has not been regularly inspected or maintained. We advocated for a study that would assess the wall's condition and the surrounding geologic conditions, and include emergency response planning should the wall fail. 

We made such a strong case (see Previous 2023 updates below for our testimony and media coverage) for this project that the Legislature awarded $1 million in funding as part of the State and Local Government budget package — far more than we asked for. The extra reserve funding ensures that if the initial study reveals the need for further investigation, it can be completed without delay.

It's a sign legislative leaders recognize the importance of this complicated geophysical issue and want to make sure it gets a complete investigation.

What comes next

The University of Minnesota's St. Anthony Falls Lab and Hennepin County's Emergency Management department will take the lead on managing this project. 

FMR will stay involved, and we'll share the results of the study over the next two years. We'll also keep working with our federal and state leaders to resolve the question of the wall's ownership — an unknown that must be resolved to ensure the cutoff wall is inspected and maintained going forward.

We'd like to thank Reps. Sydney Jordan, Ginny Klevorn, and Sens. Erin Murphy and Bobby Joe Champion, for their leadership on this bill, which passed in the House by a 69-62 vote and in the Senate by 34-30.

Other crucial supporters include Hennepin County (especially board Chair Irene Fernando and Emergency Management Director Eric Waage), the city of Minneapolis, Freshwater and the National Parks Conservation Association. The research of FMR board member Dr. John Anfinson has also been vital to this effort.

Previous 2023 updates

May 15: Promising news for cutoff wall study as final floor votes approach

As the legislative session enters its final days, funding to study the St. Anthony Falls cutoff wall appears very likely.

The State and Local Government conference committee adopted its final budget package over the weekend. It includes $1 million for the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Lab to study the massive concrete cutoff wall that cuts through the riverbed. 

FMR and our partners had initially asked for $750,000, but legislative leaders recognized the importance of this issue and allocated additional funding for a more thorough study. 

The full House and Senate must now pass the budget package before it can reach the governor’s desk.

With just a week left in the session, FMR is feeling very hopeful and encouraged by this success in the conference committee.

This would not have been possible without the leadership of our authors in the Legislature — we are so thankful to Reps. Sydney Jordan and Ginny Klevorn, as well as Sen. Bobby Joe Champion for going above and beyond for this bill.

 

May 5: MN Reformer: ‘Is the fragile geology of St. Anthony Falls imperiled?’

As funding for an overdue investigation into the St. Anthony Falls cutoff wall hangs in the balance, the Minnesota Reformer is highlighting the worrying uncertainties that loom over this critical piece of river infrastructure.

“Is the fragile geology of St. Anthony Falls imperiled?” asks the headline of the piece, published May 4 and written by Mike Mosedale

The story explores the history of the cutoff wall, describing it as an “immense concrete dike” constructed under the riverbed in the 1870s to prevent St. Anthony Falls from collapsing. Nearly 150 years later, nobody knows what condition the wall is in (though there are some disconcerting signs), or whether it might be on the verge of failure.

“There is no default owner and no one accepts ownership because no one wants to get stuck with it,” FMR board member John Anfinson told Minnesota Reformer. “Without knowing the owner, there is no one responsible for inspection, maintenance, or an emergency action plan if it fails. It’s unconscionable.”

Those unanswered questions — combined with the potentially serious consequences were the wall to fail — are behind some of FMR’s efforts at the Capitol this legislative session. 

We’re hopeful the Legislature will ultimately agree to fund a geophysical investigation of the cutoff wall's condition, but time is running short. While the House included this funding in its State and Local Government budget bill, the Senate did not.

FMR River Guardians have been among the many supporters urging legislators to include the House funding language in the final budget bill. 

Will this final push be enough to get this FMR priority across the legislative finish line? 

We’ll find out soon. Check back here for updates in the near future. 

In the meantime, make sure to read the full Minnesota Reformer story.

April 11: Cutoff wall study picks up support heading into session’s final stretch

We’ve raised our concerns about the state of the St. Anthony Falls cutoff wall and what would happen if it were to fail. Lawmakers are taking notice. 

After our recent committee hearings, the House State and Local Government committee has recommended full funding for our cutoff wall study bill in their draft committee budget. (You can read more details about what’s in the bill in the prior updates below.)

While the Senate committee did not include funding for this project in their draft budget, we are optimistic that both chambers will agree to fund this bill as they negotiate in conference committee through the month of April and into May.

March 20: Watch: FMR testifies in support of cutoff wall study bill

Our bill to fund a study of the St. Anthony Falls cutoff wall — the underwater concrete structure that for nearly 150 years has kept St. Anthony Falls from collapsing — received hearings in both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature last week.

FMR's Land Use & Planning Director Colleen O'Connor Toberman testified in support of the bill in front of the Senate State and Local Government and Veterans committee on March 16, then did so again at a House State and Local Government Finance and Policy committee the following day. 

The legislation, she told lawmakers, "presents an important opportunity to address one of the Twin Cities' most neglected and overlooked yet crucial pieces of infrastructure: The cutoff wall that helps hold up St. Anthony Falls."

The companion bills (SF 2586/HF 2408) were moved forward for potential funding discussions later in the legislative session.

The legislation would enable the University of Minnesota's St. Anthony Falls Lab to conduct a geophysical investigation of the cutoff wall's condition, modeling of the surrounding area, and examination of public safety and infrastructure risks posed by potential failure of the cutoff wall or surrounding area.

In addition to FMR, other supporters include Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis, Freshwater, and the National Parks Conservation Association. We appreciate the support of our lead authors, Sen. Bobby Joe Champion and Rep. Sydney Jordan, as well as the committee chairs: Sen. Erin Murphy and Rep. Ginny Klevorn.

Read more about the cutoff wall: St. Anthony Falls' hidden hazard.

You can watch testimony from the House hearing below or on YouTube.

March 9: New bill would fund study of St. Anthony Falls cutoff wall

There’s a lot we don’t know about the massive underground cutoff wall that, for nearly 150 years, has kept St. Anthony Falls from collapsing.

It’s unclear when this 1,850-foot-long concrete structure that plunges 40 feet beneath the riverbed was last maintained or inspected. We have no idea what kind of shape it’s in or what repairs, if any, might be needed. And the question of who owns the wall — and is therefore responsible for it — remains murky.

Why does it matter? If the wall were to fail, it could compromise the water supply for Minneapolis, St. Paul and several suburbs, and threaten nearby roads and bridges.

A new bill at the Capitol would allow researchers to begin answering some of those questions.

The Minnesota Legislature recently introduced a bill (SF 2586, HF 2408) to fund a study of the cutoff wall. If passed, the University of Minnesota's St. Anthony Falls Lab would lead this $750,000 project.

The study will include geophysical investigation of the cutoff wall's condition, modeling of the surrounding area, and examination of public safety and infrastructure risks posed by potential failure of the cutoff wall or surrounding area.

This research project would help us move toward better hazard planning and infrastructure maintenance for the falls area. Having this information will also make it easier to settle the question of who is responsible for the cutoff wall. 

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion and Rep. Sydney Jordan are the bills' lead authors. We anticipate a hearing in the House State and Local Government committee during the week of March 13, and will have additional updates to share shortly after.

Read more about the cutoff wall: St. Anthony Falls' hidden hazard.

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