The Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul was tamed by dams a century ago, but the whitewater rapids that were covered up by deeper, calmer water could be on their way back.
The story of how the stretch of river developed between the St. Anthony Falls and the mouth of the Minnesota River dates way back — to before the Civil War.
"In 1858, steamboats came and went from St. Paul 1,000 times, and only 50 times from Minneapolis," said John Anfinson, a river historian and superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
"The gorge, that stretch of the river from the Minnesota River up to St. Anthony, was so steep and so full of boulders that boats just couldn't navigate it. It was impossible," he said. "Yet Minneapolis really wanted to be the head of navigation, they wanted to be the bookend to New Orleans. They wanted to get all that traffic St. Paul was getting and they realized the only way to do that was a series of locks and dams."
It took decades of politicking and then decades more to construct the three dams that line the gorge.
The first to be built was the Ford Dam in 1917. It was built high enough to power the nearby vehicle factory and flood the gorge, so boats and barges could finally reach Minneapolis with their loads of coal and construction materials. The St. Anthony Falls Locks and Dams were finished in 1963.
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As recently as 20 years ago, well over 1,300 barges a year were going up and down the river between St. Paul to Minneapolis according to data from the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and maintains the structures.
But things change. An urban housing boom brought new residents to the riverfront. When barge traffic declined, Minneapolis closed its harbor terminal. In 2013, evidence showed that invasive carp were moving up the river, so Congress shut the gates to the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam in 2015. Now, with no reason to keep the channel clear, the Corps has stopped dredging the river.
Last year, the Corps did a first internal study on whether it should even be in the dam business anymore in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Maintaining the Ford dam, and Upper and Lower St. Anthony Falls, is expensive, said Kevin Baumgard, the Corps' chief of operations in the St. Paul District.
"I'd say on an average annually, we're at about $1.5 million for all three sites to kind of do some maintenance, said Baumgard. "We're spending a little bit of money fixing this tainter gate on the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock, because we still need to maintain the flood control capabilities."
The Corps has now launched a second, more intensive review of the Twin Cities dams. Project manager Nanette Bischoff says it will take about a year and a half.
"Our guidance is pretty specific on what we have to look at, and that is, keep it, the no-action plan, and dispose of it," said Bischoff.
The so-called "disposition study" does not address the long-term future of the river. It only looks at whether the Corps should keep the dams and spend taxpayer money on them.
Bischoff said the analysis may look at who could take over the dam, such as a state or local agency, or it could offer Congress the opportunity to decide the fate of the dams in some other way. Ripping out the structures is not on the table now, she added.
But previous Corps studies, elsewhere in the country, have been the first step toward such a move. The Corps demolished a century-old navigation dam on Kentucky's Green River last year — more than 60 years after the locks there closed. And in northern Maine, the federal government took out two dams and built a bypass on the Penobscot River starting in 2012.
"Those dam removals opened up 1,000 miles for salmon and other species," says Brian Graber, senior director of river restoration for the Washington, D.C.-based conservation group American Rivers.
American Rivers says more than 1,400 dams have been removed across the country over the last century, and Graber says dam removal is actually a very common practice that restores the natural flow of rivers and the ecosystems that grew up around them.
But no one knows what would happen if the Ford or St. Anthony dams were removed. No one alive now has seen a free-flowing Mississippi.
River historian John Anfinson said the river drops more than 100 feet as it winds through the Twin Cities, creating a natural whitewater feature that the dams disguise.
"There was this incredible rapids through the gorge, especially above the Lake-Marshall bridge. That's where the rapids was the strongest, and where the most boulders were," said Anfinson. "Below that bridge we see less boulders, gravel bars, rocks. But it's still a pretty fast river."
But as intriguing as that may sound to some, others are quite happy with the Mississippi as it is.
Every summer, hundreds of people take to the calm water pooled above the Ford Dam to row.
Lauren Crandall, president of the Minneapolis Rowing Club, says the long, relatively straight stretch of river is already an urban recreational amenity like almost none other in the country.
"It's fabulous for us," said Crandall, who notes that rowing has to take place on very calm water. "There's always a place where you can find a place to row. You can move to a shoreline, you can sit in the middle, you can move to the other side. And it's a spot in the middle of the city where it is just dead quiet. You can hear yourself breathe. It's tremendous."
The University of Minnesota and several other schools also have rowing teams on this stretch of the Mississippi.
And the river hosts almost daily cruises on the Minneapolis Queen and the Paradise Lady cruise boats, as well as canoe trips, a beachfront dog park, and nearly year-round shoreline camping.
The Twin Cities dams are also hydropower facilities — generating green energy that will potentially go away if the dams are taken out.
Anfinson, the river historian, says figuring out what to do about the dams won't be easy.
"So there's really this question of who uses the river now? And who's going to use it if you restored it?" asks Anfinson. "Would you see 5,000 people down on the river on a nice summer day if you could float on an innertube down the river if it was really low? Could you see whitewater kayakers and rafters, if the river was raging down a restored gorge?"
Those are the questions the Corps hopes to eventually answer with input from the public. Meetings on the future of the gorge will be held Monday night at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis and Tuesday at Highland High School in St. Paul. Both meetings start at 6 p.m.