As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins a study that will determine the future of the locks and dams at Lower Saint Anthony Falls and by the former Ford Motor Company site, advocates for the Mississippi River will be offering free walking, biking, kayaking and paddleboat tours in June and July to educate the public about the dams’ effect on the river and what it might mean if they were removed.

ford dam
An aerial view of the Mississippi’s Lock and Dam No. 1 downriver from the Ford Bridge. Photo by Mike Durenberger

Removing the dams would have colossal environmental implications, according to Colleen O’Connor Toberman, land-use coordinator for the Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR).

Lock and Dam No. 1 by the Ford site was constructed in 1917 and reconstructed in 1929, 1978 and 1983. The reconstruction  process involved removing boulders and dredging the river bed, releasing sediment and shifting the natural habitat of the river, O’Connor Toberman said. Those factors and many others will be considered as the Army Corps weighs the pros and cons of removing the dams. 

Once home to whitewater rapids.

Prior to the construction of the dams, portions of the river between the Ford site and Saint Anthony Falls were white-water rapids and home to paddlefish, sturgeon and other native species. Islands were interspersed throughout that stretch, providing additional habitat for native plants and wildlife. However, the implications of removing the dams should be seriously scrutinized before any decisions are made, O’Connor Toberman said.

FMR has not taken a position on the dams’ removal. “Generally, dam removal seems to be good for wildlife,” O’Connor Toberman said. “But every situation is unique and has particular costs and benefits, and we don’t yet have an understanding of those particulars.”

Conversations on the future of the Mississippi.

Roopali Phadke, a professor of environmental studies at Macalester College and principal investigator for the river tours project, is hoping to register around 300 participants for the tours. The tours are being funded by the National Science Foundation and are being conducted by a coalition made up of Macalester, FMR, the Saint Paul Public Library, the Mississippi Park Connection, American Rivers and the National Park Service.

The tours are intended to encourage conversations among local residents and business people about the prospects of undamming the river, according to Phadke, who is also waiting for the Army Corps’  study before taking a position on the locks and dams. Tour participants will be asked to consider what they want for the future of the river in light of its history both before and after the dams were constructed. “There’s nobody alive who remembers what the river was like undammed, so unlocking the river’s future means bringing it into the past,” she said.

 

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Phadke is hoping that by offering a range of tour types, including the wheelchair-accessible paddleboat tour, the sponsors will achieve a level of engagement not typically reached in public hearings conducted by governmental organizations. The number of public comments received by the Army Corps for its previous study of the Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam could have been higher, she said.

“When we get people having conversations close to the river, it might actually change the nature of the conversations themselves,” Phadke said.

Lock and dam studies may take decades.

The draft report for the Army Corps’ Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam study was published in March 2021. The Corps is now seeking a new owner for the lock. The spillway and most of the dam there is owned by Xcel Energy.

According to Army Corps of Engineers project manager Nanette Bischoff, the Army Corps is in the process of collecting funds for the study of the Lower Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam and Lock and Dam No. 1. That study will likely begin in the fall, she said. 

The study process takes years. If a decision is made to remove the dams, that process might take decades. That is why Phadke is urging the public to get involved in the process, which she feels will have generational implications.

“You might be 20 years old today, but you might be 40 when this process is complete,” she said.

For more information on the 10-mile bike tours on June 4 and 11, the five-mile kayak tours on June 3 and 17, the two-hour boat tour on June 22, or the two-mile walking tours on June 18, July 16 and July 20, visit bit.ly/tcdamtours.

— Casey Ek

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