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Report: 2 Minnesota rivers among most endangered in U.S.

Kawishiwi River
The Kawishiwi River near Ely, Minn., is listed as one of the country's most endangered waterways in a new report.
Derek Montgomery | MPR News file

A new report lists two rivers in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin as among the most endangered rivers in the United States.

Every year, the environmental advocacy group American Rivers publishes a list of the 10 U.S. rivers it considers most at risk.

"This report basically tries to identify rivers that are at a crossroads," said Olivia Dorothy, associate director for the Upper Mississippi River basin at American Rivers.

The group considers a waterway's significance, as well of the magnitude of threat it faces. All rivers on the list have a major decision point coming up within the next year or two that could redefine the health of its ecosystem and how the community uses it, Dorothy said.

"We have seldom seen over the many years of issuing this report a collection of threats this severe or an administration so bent on undermining and reversing protections for clean water, rivers and health," she said.

This year's report ranks the Kawishiwi River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as the third most endangered in the nation.

That's due to Twin Metals' proposed underground copper-nickel mine near Ely. Environmentalists fear it could pollute the water that runs into the Boundary Waters.

The Trump administration is considering whether to go ahead with a 20-year mining moratorium on projects near the BWCA as proposed in the waning days of the Obama presidency.

Two other rivers made the list not because they face imminent threats, but because of proposals to remove locks or dams, allowing the water to flow freely.

One is an 8-mile stretch of the Mississippi from St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis to the confluence of the Minnesota River, listed at No. 6. It's known as the Mississippi River Gorge because of the steep bluffs along the water.

The St. Anthony Falls Lock sits empty.
The St. Anthony Falls Lock sits empty.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying two locks and dams on the river to decide whether to remove them. Restoring the natural character of the river would be a positive step, Dorothy said.

"If the locks and dams were removed, the river would transition from what is now considered slack water pools or reservoirs into rapid swift moving water," she said.

Big rapids are rare along the Upper Mississippi, and they provide important habitat for threatened species like mussels that rely on swift-moving water, Dorothy said.

At No. 10 on the list is the Kinnickinnic River in northwestern Wisconsin. To anglers and kayakers, it's known as the Kinni, a world-class trout stream that runs right through the city of River Falls.

The river's natural flow is disrupted by two dams that provide electricity to the city. The federal licenses for those dams are expiring, and officials in River Falls are seeking to renew them.

But some residents like Michael Page want to see the dams removed. Page, president of Friends of the Kinni, called the section of river where the dams are "sad."

"For a mile of the river right in town, it's these two ponds instead of what would otherwise be a beautiful world-class trout stream," Page said. "Instead, we have a couple of stagnant and highly eutrophic, really gross mill ponds."

The city agreed that the dams eventually should be removed, but not until 2023 and 2040. Page said that delay doesn't make sense.

"You have a world-class river, you have an urban environment," he said. "And you have a river that is currently severely degraded by the presence of the dams that you have an opportunity to restore."

Across the United States, more communities are taking an interest in the rivers they once took for granted.

Dorothy said there's been a shift toward seeing rivers as a community resource rather simply than a transportation corridor or a place for garbage. She said a century or more ago, rivers were considered the back door "where you dumped your sewage."

"People didn't recreate there," Dorothy said. "You wouldn't want to see a river aesthetically. It wasn't an important part of a community."

This story is part of The Water Main from MPR News, helping Minnesotans understand the value of water in our lives. Check out @thewatermain on Twitter.

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