Corps study to determine local locks and dams' fate, but questions abound

MINNEAPOLIS -- By Irene Jones, Friends of the Mississippi River.

August 15, 2018

While mid-summer meetings aren't typically known for great attendance, a series of mid-July meetings drew crowds of metro-area residents and other stakeholders to discuss the future of underused locks and dams in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The purpose of the meetings was to help inform the public about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' disposition study for the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock, the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam and Lock and Dam #1 (a.k.a. the Ford Lock and Dam), and the potential process of transferring or selling the properties now owned by the Corps.

In a nutshell, the Corps is trying to determine if it makes sense for the federal government to continue to own and/or operate the locks and dams, and, if not, what entity would or could take on the ownership and maintenance of this massive infrastructure.

Options abound

A proposa, which FMR supports to repurpose the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock as a world-class destination visitor and interpretive center in downtown Minneapolis has been put forth by the Friends of the Lock & Dam.

Meanwhile, American Rivers has launched a "Restore the Gorge" campaign to remove the Lower St. Anthony Falls and Ford dams and return the rapids that historically provided exceptional fish-spawning habitat.

Study's scope is limited

While meeting participants expressed a wide range of views, ideas and perspectives about whether the locks and dams should stay or go, the Corps said that the scope of the Congressionally-approved disposition study is fairly narrow.

They can investigate two options: The costs and benefits of taking no action and maintaining the status quo and deauthorizing and disposing of or transferring the properties to other entities.

Many attendees expressed frustration that the Corps' disposition study will not evaluate the impacts of potential future uses of the infrastructure.

The Corps wants to hear from parties that are interested in taking ownership of some or all of the federal properties, but their assessment will not consider the environmental and social impacts of the ideas being proposed.

Questions remain

Dozens of meeting participants asked questions about dam removal. Some were inspired by the idea and others feared it would change the river too much.

Others asked questions about continued use of dams for hydropower and how disposal might impact rowing and other recreational boating in the Mississippi River Gorge.

Regardless of differences in opinion or perspectives there seemed to be a broadly shared concern that a decision could be made to dispose of the infrastructure without fully understanding if dam removal and restoration of the riverbed is feasible and what the costs and benefits of such action might be.

When attendees asked if Congress could change the scope of the study to include dam removal and other alternatives, Corps staff said that in that case they would have to restart the disposition study process from the beginning.

A complete summary of answers to the questions asked at the meetings is available on the project webpage.

In addition to taking input at the meetings, written comments on the scope of the study were accepted through August 21. (FMR's comments are available here.)

Next steps

Next year, the Corps will release a draft report of their findings in an Environmental Assessment and take additional public comments before finalizing the study and their recommendation to Congress by the end of 2019.

FMR is following the study and the future of our local locks and dams closely. Learn more about our position on the potential for local dam removal in our position statement, and look to future Mississippi Messages for updates.