The Kinni keeps rolling along, like friends and opponents in the dam debate

Posted March 8, 2018

In the 1970s, the Kinnickinnic River was a cesspool that people dumped raw sewage and oil into, according to lifelong city resident Alison Page.

Today it is a premier fishing destination that is classified as a Class 1 trout stream by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Seeking to make the corridor an even healthier environment for trout to thrive, among other purposes, the River Falls City Council unanimously passed a resolution last week to remove the hydroelectric facilities and complete stream restoration with a target date between 2035 and 2040.

“We’re talking timeframe here, and that’s flexible, and it’s going to depend on money,” said Page, who in addition to being a lifelong resident is also secretary of the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, a nonprofit citizen organization that seeks to protect the river and its watershed. “The good news is that we have a collective vision for this community that involves that river, right there, being free of the impoundments.”

In addition to getting the river free, another objective of the land trust is to keep the river cold, an essential aspect for maintaining quality trout life in the stream.

The temperature is of particular concern now with data showing that in recent summers the water level has exceeded the physiological temperature for brown trout. In 2012, this physiological limit of 66 degrees was exceeded in the river for a cumulative total of 8.8 days, according to monitoring data from Trout Unlimited.

Aside from preserving the river as a healthy living environment for trout, another environmental concern is the renewable energy that the river will no longer supply after the dams are removed. The city currently obtains from the dams an estimated 2 million kilowatt hours of energy annually, which is enough to supply 223 homes with electricity for an entire year, according to the EPA.

“I’m all in favor of green energy. I’m the CEO of a medical center that’s running completely on GEO thermal heating and cooling,” Page said. “Renewable energy is a great thing, but should we forfeit the beauty of this free-flowing river in order to get it? No.”

Despite Page’s firm stance and solid support of a free-flowing river, she thoroughly agrees with the sentiment expressed at the council meeting by Alderman Scott Morrissette to not allow the issue to lead to “unhealthy division within the city.” Exercising this desire for unity, Page does not allow her opinion on the topic to disrupt a friendship she has had since high school with Patricia La Rue, a lifelong resident and staunch opponent of the dam removal.

“I appreciate the 2 million kilowatt hours of green energy we get every year,” said La Rue, who serves on the city’s Kinni Corridor Planning Commission. “I support having Lake George and spending the money to improve Lake George, so that we have a river-lake-river environment.”

For proponents of the dam, having Lake George results in having an increased level of ecological diversity in the city, according to La Rue.

“The lake has a different diversity than the river, so therefore you have turtles, which aren’t going to be there,” La Rue said. “You and I don’t like to eat carp, but blue heron do, so blue heron would be there, but now they’ll be gone because there’s no carp.”

Just like Page, despite the level of energy and involvement she has devoted to the corridor, her friendship is much more meaningful to her than the city’s decision to take away the dams.

“You can’t take away high school,” La Rue said. “We still are friends, and we always will be.”