Student’s documentary explores debate over two dams in River Falls

Posted December 7, 2015

What started out as a small Web video project for UW-River Falls student Sydney Howell has grown into something much bigger. Her documentary, titled “The Dam Decision,” made it to the big screen at the Falls Theatre in downtown River Falls on Monday, Dec. 7.

Howell, a double major in marketing communications and digital film and photography, thought her small Web video about the two historic dams on the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls was only going to be for the Friends of the Kinni organization. The Junction Falls and Powell Falls hydroelectric dams, which created Lake George and Lake Louise, are the focus of a debate in the community about whether to keep or remove them.

“I met the spokesperson for Friends of the Kinni, and we just started talking about it, and I thought it was an interesting story, but as I continued working towards making that short video for their website, I found out that people are really invested in the topic,” Howell said.

Before starting the video project, Howell had no idea that there were two dams in River Falls.

“Personally, I didn’t know that there were dams in River Falls, so I thought there are others in my situation who don’t know that this is happening, and don’t know the issues behind it,” Howell said.

She picked the topic because of the lack of knowledge that people in River Falls had about the dams. Making a short film about the dams was the perfect way for Howell to make others aware about the situation.

The dams have been around for nearly 180 years, and the City of River Falls is trying to decide to either relicense the dams or to completely take them out. The dam licenses expire in 2018.

Those who are in favor of removing the dams are worried about the trout population in the river. Lake George and Lake Louise heat the water because they are impediments created by the dams, and trout can only survive in a small variation of temperature. Those in favor of removing the dams also want the river to be free flowing in its natural state.

On the other side of the debate, there are those who want to keep the dam around for multiple reasons.

“There are those who really appreciate the dams and feel like they’re an asset to our community,” Howell said. “There are some who really enjoy the lakes that we have. Also, the dams produce a minimal amount of energy.”

The dams do not produce a whole lot of energy, Howell said, but enough to make a difference in the city’s budget. The fact the energy is produced locally and is considered renewable energy is a bonus as well.

Howell has been so interested in the feedback that she has received from the community while putting the documentary together.

“This is the first project where it’s been so important to so many different people. Many people are concerned and invested in what I put together,” Howell said. “I had to send the city of River Falls a little preview of it because they want to know if they are going to back my movie or not.”

To say that the turnout for the documentary on Dec. 7 was good would be an understatement. Every seat in the Falls Theatre was filled, while some in the audience had to stand in the back of the theater or sit down in one of the aisles.

A River Falls resident who did not want to give her name was intrigued by the documentary and impressed with Howell’s work.

“I thought that the film was interesting and I found out information about the dams that I did not know before,” she said.

The documentary itself lasted less than 15 minutes. After the conclusion of the film, Howell opened up the floor for questions. There were a wide variety of questions directed towards Howell and Michael Page, the spokesperson for the Friends of the Kinni. Filmgoers asked Howell if she plans to make a second part to the documentary in the future.

“If I am still in the area in five years, I want to do a follow-up film to see where the debate is at that time,” Howell said.

Page answered questions about how much it would cost to take out the dams as opposed to renewing the licenses for the dams and making repairs.