Future of Mississippi River dams in Twin Cities up for discussion again

A dam along the Mississippi River
Lock and Dam 1, the Ford Dam, is seen along the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul on Thursday.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Updated: Oct. 7, 11:30 a.m.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is about to restart a study charting the future of the Mississippi River gorge between Minneapolis and St. Paul, after barge traffic on that stretch of the river ended in 2015.

There are three lock and dam structures along that part of the Mississippi, and the Corps is turning its attention to the Lower St. Anthony Falls and Ford dams — trying to determine what, if anything, to do with them. Open house events to gather feedback will start next week.

Some environmentalists want the dams removed and the free-flowing river restored. Christine Goepfert is with the National Parks Conservation Association, and at a gathering near the river on Thursday in Minneapolis she said many unknowns lie ahead, like a century of sediment buildup behind the dams.

"What's in that sediment? Is anything toxic there? If we remove the structures, that would mean that there might be more shoreline and more islands that would form because the water levels would drop. Who would manage those islands?" Goepfert said. "Would that provide more recreational access or less? ... These are a lot of questions that we have."

The future of that stretch of the Mississippi River, between St. Anthony Falls and the mouth of the Minnesota River, has been studied before. For its part, the Corps said its latest study will "look at a variety of options for these sites," including leaving the dams unchanged, or deauthorizing and removing them.

"This study is expected to take at least two years to complete. Once complete, the St. Paul District will provide a recommendation to Congress after fully evaluating all alternatives," the Corps reported in a news release.

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The scheduled open houses include:

  • Tuesday, Oct. 11, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Highland Park Middle School, 975 Snelling Ave. South, St. Paul.

  • Friday, Oct. 14, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Lock and Dam 1 (Ford Dam), 5000 W. River Parkway, Minneapolis.

  • Saturday, Oct. 15, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Lock and Dam 1.

  • Tuesday, Oct. 25, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Dowling Elementary School, 3900 W. River Parkway, Minneapolis.

An artist's rendering of green space along a river
The National Parks Conservation Association commissioned renderings of the potential appearance of the Mississippi River gorge between Minneapolis and St. Paul if two major dams were removed. This shows the Ford Parkway bridge and the former location of the dam below it.
Courtesy of National Parks Conservation Association

John Anfinson is a historian of the river and former superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. He said structures like the Ford Lock and Dam are not used for flood control, and the river could be returned to its free-flowing origins from Minneapolis to Hastings.

"This lock and dam that we're looking at is a concrete and steel embodiment of visions of the 19th and 20th centuries," he said Thursday along the river in Minneapolis. "For the first time since the Twin Cities were established, we have a chance to redefine what the river in the heart of the Twin Cities means to us."

The Corps said that while the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam was closed to navigation in 2015, it provides some flood risk protection. That structure, the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, and Lock and Dam 1 remain operational; the latter two remain open to navigation.

Correction (Oct. 7, 2022): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the status of two of the lock and dam structures.