River Falls seeks input on Kinnickinnic River plans

The possibility of removing two dams is part of a community conversation about the famed river’s future staring Dec. 8.




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Kinnickinnic River falls before 1890 (Wisconsin Historical Society)
Kinnickinnic River falls before 1890 (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Kinni Corridor Kick-Off Open House
Thursday, December 8th
6:30 – 8 p.m.
River Falls Public Library
140 Union St, River Falls, WI 54022
More information →

The falls could soon fall again on the Kinnickinnic River, as River Falls considers how it might restore and benefit from the trout stream flowing through its center.

The public is invited to a listening session next week about plans for the river, including the possibility of removing two municipal dams.

“I encourage anybody who is interested in the river to come and meet the committee and talk to other people about what you envision for the river in the years to come with development and growth long it,” said River Falls mayor Dan Toland.

Much of the Kinni’s 22 miles are the best trout fishing to be found around here. The eight-mile canyon below the dam is famed not only for its angling, but in recent years has become a popular kayaking route.

Free the falls?

Since 2013, a citizen effort coordinated by a group called Friends of the Kinni has been urging the city to consider the possibility of restoring the river to its natural state.

Removing the dams would mean  giving up a small amount of electrical generation (1.4 percent of the city’s power in 2014) to gain a free-flowing stream and beautiful waterfalls. In the mile of river that is dammed up, it drops 70 vertical feet. Big cascades have been buried under the water – and under massive amounts of muck.

The possibility is being examined as a larger look at how the historic university town might make the river a bigger asset to its citizens and visitors.

“The restoration of the Kinnickinnic River through dam removal is a unique opportunity to make exceptional use of this public waterway resource,” say Friends of the Kinni. “We have the opportunity to re-create the historic Junction Falls waterfall along the White Pathway below the Winter Street Bridge, restore a full mile of world-class coldwater trout stream right in the heart of our community, and at the same time revitalize our Main Street community through the development of the immediately adjacent Kinnickinnic River Corridor.”

The Dec. 8 open house is intended to spark conversation about a vision for the entire river in the decades ahead, the beginning of a two-year community discussion.

Environmental effects

The city needs to decide by 2018 if it will seek to renew its dam license. The open house next week will be a chance to learn about the possibilities, speak with committee members, and share their concerns and ideas.

One of the key concerns about removing the dams is the sediment that has built up in the lakes behind them. It is a mixture of sand, silt, soil – and goose poop. Geese have found the ponds to be good homes, and their defecation can contribute to poor water quality. Friends of the Kinni say one Canada goose can contribute about a half pound of phosphorus to a waterbody each year.

“An unnaturally low population of predators (especially in urban environs) and abundance of food allows Canada geese to quickly overpopulate an area,” the group reports. “Geese eat plant material on land but are frequently on the water when they defecate. Goose fecal material is high in nutrients which fuel growth of algae and aquatic plants.”

But removing the dams and the impoundments could send contaminated sediments downstream. Friends of the Kinni say harmful erosion can be prevented by draining down the water at certain times of year, and planting grasses that will sprout quickly and hold the soil.

There would also be big benefits to the downstream river – first and foremost, colder water. Several years of monitoring have shown that water warms up in the ponds as much as five degrees before heading over the dams. It can push the water temperature above the threshold for healthy trout.

But it might be the positive effects on people that prevail. The river’s song has been muted since the first mill was built at the falls in in 1854. The last remaining cascade was drowned in 1987, when the upper impoundment was raised.

Whispering river

“I believe that returning the falls would be a huge asset for the city, and certainly the river,” says Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association. “There will be a short window where it’ll take the river downstream a few years to recover, but in the long run, returning the river to its free-flowing state would be incredible.”

Freeing the river would be in line with a trend across the United States to remove old dams with limited benefits. Last year, 62 such dams were removed, according to American Rivers. In Wisconsin, 50 dams have been removed since 1990.

“The thing that I’m particularly sensitive to, is you’d be able to hear the river in the downtown area,” said Dave Fodroczi, director of the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust. (Fodroczi is also on the Kinni Corridor Planning Committee, but was speaking in his KRLT role.)

“Right now it makes a big roar as it goes over the dam, but I just think the sound of moving water is individually and culturally therapeutic,” Fodroczi said. “I grew up on Lake Michigan and it’s always talking. A river like this is no different. It whispers to you.”

Everyone interested in the future of the Kinnickinnic River is encouraged to attend the event on December 8. There will be activities for kids, refreshments, informational displays, experts, and a short program at 7 p.m. It might be that by people using their voices now, they’ll hear the Kinnickinnic whisper again in a few years.


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River Falls seeks input on Kinnickinnic River plans