Kinnickinnic River declared ‘endangered’ due to dams

American Rivers named the St. Croix tributary and trout stream to its annual list to urge leaders to remove dams in River Falls soon.




3 minute read

Children swimming below a dam in River Falls, Wisconsin
Photo courtesy Michael Page, Friends of the Kinni

The largest tributary on the lower St. Croix River is one of the “Most Endangered Rivers in America” according to the national advocacy group American Rivers and local partners. The Kinnickinnic is the last major tributary to the Wild and Scenic St. Croix and is a famous trout stream.

But two dams on the river in River Falls are causing harm.

The dams have been the subject of debate and discussion for several years. In February, the city council voted to remove the dams at some point in the future — possibly more than 20 years from now.

The announcement came with a call to remove the dams as soon as possible.

“The costs, over time, of keeping these dams are far outweighed by the benefits of removal,” said Duke Welter of Trout Unlimited’s Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TU-DARE). “River Falls residents and visitors alike will appreciate the restored river corridor flowing right behind Main Street, where they can bike, walk, bird-watch or fish amid the natural beauty.”

Dam decisions

While the groups say dams have numerous negative impacts, removing them can restore water and create a valuable community asset.

In general, dams disrupt natural flows, destroy habitat for fish and wildlife, and harm water quality. The River Falls dams have been found to raise water temperatures more than 4 degrees — during the summer, it can get warm enough to imperil the river’s famous trout.

On the other hand, removing dams has a track record of improved fishing, increased wildlife, cleaner water, and economic benefits.

“These dams have served their purpose, and now it’s time for them to go,” said Olivia Dorothy with American Rivers. “We must seize this moment to restore the rivers to health and create positive change that will last for generations to come.”

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, a dam removal project on the Prairie River near Merrill in 1991 resulted in a thiry-fold increase in native brook trout reproduction, eliminating the need to stock the stream.

On the Baraboo River, dam removal completed in 2001 created the opportunity for a Riverwalk popular with residents and tourists.

Free the Kinni

River Falls residents are hoping for the same sorts of outcomes on the Kinnickinnic, but aren’t happy with the city’s decades-long plan. Primarily concerned about taxpayer costs to remove the dam and restore the river and surrounding area, the city council wants to wait to remove the Lower Dam in 2023 and postpone removal of the Upper Dam until around 2040.

“The River Falls City Council passed a resolution on February 27th calling for eventual removal of both dams from the Kinni. This action acknowledges the fact that the complete restoration of the Kinnickinnic River through dam removal is the right thing to do and is in the best interest of the general public,” said Michael Page of Friends of the Kinni. “However, the City’s current timeline, which delays the removal of the Upper Junction Falls Dam another 20 or more years until a target date of 2040, is completely unacceptable for the health of the river and for the economic vitality of our adjacent Main Street Community.”

A petition accompanying the announcement asks the city of River Falls to remove the two dams and restore the river to its natural state.

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers facing key decisions in the coming months. American Rivers has been releasing it every year