Proposal to remove Kinni dams sparks concerns about river ecology

Posted May 3, 2017

The potential to remove two dams from the Kinnickinnic River has gotten experts, officials and citizens in River Falls debating about, among other things, the ecological impacts of undergoing such a project.

“I would argue, and many would argue,” said Michael Page, president and spokesperson for Friends of the Kinni (FOTK), “that cold-water resources such as a Class 1 trout stream is amongst some of the best habitat that you can possibly have.”

FOTK is one of several organizations — including the Kiap-TU-Wish chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Kinni River Land Trust — that have become involved with the dam debate. In 2015, the license that permits the city of River Falls to run the hydroelectric facilities at the two dams came up for renewal. In response, the city decided to apply for a five-year extension on the license so that it could decide on whether to keep the dams. Page and FOTK have taken the position that the dams should come out.

“It is literally the biggest opportunity for transformation that our community has ever seen,” Page said.

One of the biggest arguments against the dams is that they are causing ecological harm to the Kinni River, which is listed as a Class 1 trout stream by the Department of Natural Resources. A Class 1 river has a large, reproducing population of wild trout. The section of river that flows through city, however, has been backed up by the presence of the dams.

“They’re warming up the water — we call that ‘thermal loading’ — and they are creating a different type of habitat that’s not really found in the Kinni,” said UW-River Falls Assistant Professor Jill Coleman-Wasik. Overall, she said, the Kinni is in relatively good shape, and the dams allow through enough water that they aren’t causing massive problems such as sediment starvation downstream or methane emission from a buildup of bacteria. They do, however, detract from the Kinni’s value as a trout stream.

Trout need cold, fast-moving water with rocky riverbeds, and the water a few miles upstream of the two dams has become slow and silty. Slow, warm-water species like carp, snapping turtles and geese have moved in, but brook trout — which are already under pressure from climate change according to the Environmental Protection Agency — cannot thrive in the slower parts of the river.

“I don’t think there’s any concern that carp and green sunfish are going to, you know, go extinct,” said Coleman-Wasik.

The city of River Falls has been making moves to address this issue since the hydroelectric license came up for renewal. After getting the five-year extension, it launched the Kinni Corridor project, a two-year process in which the city will be looking to improve the seven miles of river that run through the middle of River Falls. This project includes the dams, but Project Manager and Community Development Director Buddy Lucero said that there are other aspects of the project that need to be addressed first, such as how the city will deal with storm water runoff into the river.

“I think what’s happening is a lot of people are jumping ahead. They want one issue,” Lucero said. “There’s a lot of information out there, what things are perceived to be. They may be right, but our goal in hiring these consultants and experts and scientists is to review that information, so that at the end of this process, when we do make a decision, we’re able to make a decision that has been reviewed, and has been agreed upon.”

Since January, the city has been putting on Tech Talks, assembling panels of experts to discuss different aspects of river improvement. The talk held in March focused on river ecology, the one in April was about economic and neighborhood development, and May’s will cover the hydroelectric generators, the dams and relicensing. The talks are open to the public and include a segment in which audience members may ask questions.

Andy Roth is a local fly fishermen who runs his own business, Gray Goat Fly Fishing, and often takes customers fishing along the Kinni River. He attended the March discussion about river ecology, and said that he thinks many people were hoping to hear more about the dam.

“All of the environmental people were here because it’s such a hot button issue,” Roth said. There are, he said, a lot of things that have yet to be explained regarding the dams, such as a definite number on how much the project will cost. Page estimates the removal process would cost around $2.8 million, based on a feasibility study conducted by the FOTK, but the city of River Falls has yet to release an estimate or cost-benefit analysis of its own.

“Hopefully,” said Roth, “this process of, you know, going through all of these different facets of the Corridor Project, hopefully it’ll bring back more to light.”

Roth has spent 20 years as a fly-fishing guide, and has had experience with both the Kinni and with other, undammed rivers such as the Rush. There’s no way to tell the effects of the dams for sure, he said, because fishing itself is so variable, but the slow, silty stretches of river that run through town, upstream of the dams, are not ideal for fishing.

“I used to fish right in town, and now those areas are really not fishable anymore,” Roth said. “They don’t really provide meaningful angling experience, if you will.”

The Kinni, Coleman-Wasik said, is a unique resource.

“These cold, clear-water trout streams are not really common,” she said.

They may seem common, she said, because there is a relatively large number of them nearby such as the Rush, Trimbelle and Vermillion, but in fact there aren’t many habitats like the Kinni.

The dam removal process itself, Coleman-Wasik added, shouldn’t cause a big ecological problem so long as it is done correctly. Arguments have been made that removal of the dam could potentially cause a large flood of silt downstream, which in turn could cause ecological harm. That won’t be a problem, Coleman-Wasik said, if the sediments that have built up behind the dams are dredged out first.

In short, Coleman-Wasik said, there is no ecological reason to keep the dams.

“I think the Kinni is a unique enough ecosystem that taking some of it, ecologically speaking, taking some of it to create these warm, shallow-water, turbid habitats is not, I don’t think that’s providing value,” Coleman-Wasik said. “I think we’re taking value away, ecologically.”

More Tech Talks are scheduled as the planning process for the Kinni Corridor project moves forward. They will be held at 6:30 p.m. on May 18, July 20 and Sept. 7 in the River Falls Public Library, and all of the talks are video recorded and posted online at Cost estimates and a plan of action, Lucero said, will probably be drafted by fall 2018 and put in place by early 2019.