The city of River Falls will consider the possibility of partnering with the federal government to accelerate removal of two dams on the Kinnickinnic River at a meeting on Nov. 9. Four years ago, the city decided to eventually remove them both, but a new proposal could see the project completed in a matter of years, not decades.
“This ten million might be enough to get us going in 2025 instead of 2035,” city utilities director Kevin Westhuis told the city council at a Sept. 27 meeting.
The goal of removing the dams is to return the eponymous cascades to the town of River Falls, which community members see as a potential major asset for residents and tourists. Shallow, mucky impoundments behind both dams would be replaced by water tumbling down about 50 feet in less than a mile. It would also reduce water warming in the Kinnickinnic, one of the best trout streams in the Midwest. Water temperatures sometimes exceed acceptable levels for trout downstream of the dams.
“The [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] St. Paul District has assessed the problems and significance of the natural resources, considered potential solutions, and their associated ecosystem restoration benefits,” the agency wrote to the city. “There is a Federal Interest in addressing the degraded ecosystem along the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls.”
Until European settlers built the first dams at the sites, the river fell about 10 feet at what’s now the upper Junction Falls dam, then ran fairly flat for 100 feet, then dropped 16 feet over the lower falls, where Powell Dam is now located.
“Prior to the dams being constructed, the Kinnickinnic River was a free-flowing river with natural waterfalls,” the Corps said. “The benefits of a potential project are improved water temperature, the restoration of natural coldwater stream habitat, and the restoration of riparian wetland habitat.”
Tale of two dams
The city’s decision in 2018 to eventually remove both dams gave them until the 2040s to remove the upper Junction Falls dam. That dam still provides a relatively small amount of electricity to the city-owned utility. The lower dam was planned for a faster removal, and after damages sustained during a flood in June 2020, the city was planning to begin take it out this winter.
If the city approves the new plan, the lower dam removal would be delayed until it could be included in a larger project.
“We’re pretty close to being ready to just remove the lower we think, we’re pretty close to having the resources to do that with our partners,” Westhuis said. “Or we can continue the pause of the lower because we actually think we could do harm to our chances of getting the Army Corps.”
City council members in September asked about the possibility of only removing the lower dam with federal help, or other options that could preserve the Junction Falls dam longer. City administrator Scott Simpson said it was unlikely.
“I think they have no interest in one dam,” he said. “In their professional judgment you can’t get enough ecological impact to make it a project of federal interest.”
The dams on the Kinnickinnic are approximately eight miles above the river’s confluence with the St. Croix. It is the last major tributary before the St. Croix joins the Mississippi. The Corps says so far it sees no possible negative impacts to the St. Croix River’s rare and endangered wildlife.
“There are several federally-listed threatened and endangered species with a potential to exist in the project area down to the St. Croix River,” the Corps wrote. “These include the northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), five mussel species, three insect species, and one plant species. No effects to these species are likely to occur and there is a potential to provide beneficial habitat for the insect species depending on the focus of riparian habitat restoration.”
One concern about dam removal has been that it would release thousands of tons of sediment stored up behind the dams. This muck would flow downstream, potentially carrying contaminants and destroying fish and insect habitat.
Work by River Falls to analyze dam removal has helped alleviate those concerns. Sediment testing has found only low levels of contaminants, and there are options for dealing with it.
“While additional testing and planning are needed, it is likely that a low-cost acceptable solution is attainable,” the Corps says.
Sharing the costs
The city would be required to contribute some funding for both the feasibility study and dam removal. The local nonprofit group formed to guide the dam removal, the Kinni Corridor Collaborative, is already working to raise funds to support the effort.
The feasibility study would cost up to $750,000. The federal government would pay the first $100,000, and split the rest of the costs with the city, leaving River Falls paying about $325,000. Last week, the Kinni Corridor Collaborative told the city it would pay up to $175,000 of the city’s costs for the study.
“This can be a big step forward for the city and the river,” said Judie Foster Babcock of the Kinni Corridor Collaborative. “We encourage council members to support working with the [Corps of Engineers], and we are willing to do our part to help with the city’s share of the study costs.”
The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it would cost up to $12 million to remove both dams, restore the river, and related work. The federal government would pay 65 percent, with 35 percent falling to the city. Representatives of the Corps has told city staff that a $1 million grant already awarded for dam removal by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources could be put toward the city’s share, and the DNR has said another similar grant may be possible.
The city council will consider a resolution authorizing working with the Army Corps of Engineers on the Feasibility Study on Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at River Falls City Hall, 222 Lewis Street. Public comments will be accepted, but speakers should contact the city clerk in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone and online access is also available: