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Dams Out on the Kinni

Three decades of effort by Gary Horvath and the Kiap-TU-Wish chapter are paying off.

Dams Out on the Kinni

Thanks in part to the efforts of Gary Horvath and members of the Kiap-TU-Wish chapter, the City of River Falls has surrendered the license for Powell Falls Dam. It now awaits removal. To recognize this success, Horvath has been named Fly Fisherman’s 2023 Conservationist of the Year. Simms Fishing Products will donate $10,000 to the chapter to continue their work protecting local fisheries. (Jake Dahlke photo)

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Frazier of Simms Fishing Products and Ross Purnell of Fly Fisherman magazine will present Gary Horvath with the 2023 Conservationist of the Year award at the River Falls Fly Fishing Film Festival, March 3, 2023 in River Falls Wisconsin. In addition to the award, Horvath will receive a $10,000 check made out to the Kiap-TU-Wish Trout Unlimited chapter in recognition of their efforts in dam removal, and in protecting and enhancing the Kinnickinnic River.

It’s an understatement to say western Wisconsin’s Kinnickinnic River is cherished for its unique characteristics and its healthy population of trout. Lying near the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota—and within a short drive of St. Paul and Minneapolis—the river is viewed by trout anglers, hikers, nature lovers, and kayakers as one of the region’s most important natural resources. The Kinni flows through River Falls, whose residents prize it as perhaps their community’s greatest attribute.

The river, referred to by nearly everyone as the Kinni, is actually two rivers from a hydrologic standpoint. The upper river, which flows approximately 20 miles, has all the characteristics of a small spring creek. The lower river, a classic freestone stream, flows roughly seven miles through deep, craggy canyons of limestone until it meets the St. Croix River.

The Kinni is classified as an “Outstanding Resource Water” and is one of the premier Class I trout streams in Wisconsin. The lower river holds an estimated 3,000 brown and brook trout per mile, while the upper Kinni has held a staggering 8,000 naturally reproducing trout per mile.

But it’s the “thing” that separates the two river segments that has caused those who love the river to sound alarms for the future of the trout and the river’s ecosystem.

Originally what divided the river was a series of waterfalls known as Junction Falls, the basis for River Falls’ name. But shortly after European settlement in the region, like many areas that were settled throughout the United States, the river was viewed as a resource meant to be put to work. The falls and the river were dammed, first for power to run flour mills, and then later to produce hydropower.

Two dams, Junction Falls and Powell Falls, each created 15-acre impoundments, and as of recently produced one percent and one-half percent, respectively of River Falls’ annual energy needs. The impoundments, once viewed as recreational resources, are now nearly filled with sediment.

River Monitoring

As development around the river and within its watershed began to expand due to regional population growth in the 1980s, concerns arose about potential impacts to the Kinni due to stormwater runoff.

historic junction falls in 1865, on Wisconsin's Kinnickinnic River
John Carbutt took this historic photo of Junction Falls on the Kinnickinnic River in 1865. The City of River Falls is named after this geologic feature, which is now under Junction Falls Dam, the upper obstruction on the Kinnickinnic. (John Carbutt photo)

“The Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter of Trout Unlimited started a thermal monitoring program in the early 1990s because we were concerned about the impacts on the river,” says Gary Horvath, who at the time worked as a chemist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and has served in a variety of leadership roles with the chapter since before the monitoring began.

Scientist Kent Johnson, along with Horvath and dozens of other chapter members over a period of decades, developed what state officials described as “the longest, most accurate, and most consistent water temperature data set on any watershed in the state.”

Their thermal monitoring showed a significant difference in temperature during the summer—as much as five degrees—between the lower and upper river, and it became clear that the river’s ability to maintain a coldwater fishery over the long term—especially facing climate change—was seriously in doubt.

“We saw right away that the dams had a negative impact on temperature, and we knew that data would be valuable at some point,” says Horvath. “At that time, the dams had recently been relicensed, but I thought to myself at the time ‘30 years from now, we might have to fight that battle.’”


In the short term, the river monitoring by Kiap-TU-Wish helped lead to River Falls adopting one of the most stringent stormwater runoff regulations in the nation. But it quickly became evident that as well-meaning and important as that action was, it would not be enough.

Horvath and other TU activists from Wisconsin turned their attention to the dams, including taking the city’s dam operator to task for often shutting off flows to the lower river in the spring and fall while cleaning the intakes. When the City of River Falls applied for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing for the dams in 2013, protectors of the Kinni saw it as a huge window of opportunity to save the river and its trout.

“The city assumed that since there was no opposition to the FERC dam relicensing in 1988, there would be none again. But when the city held its first meeting on the relicensing in 2014, 200 people showed up, with the vast majority of them delivering a message of ‘not so fast,’” says Duke Welter, longtime Wisconsin and national Trout Unlimited activist who worked on TU’s Driftless Area Restoration Effort.

Adds Horvath, “My big fear was that no one would care, but much to my surprise everyone and their brother showed up at the relicensing hearing. When I saw that, I became very hopeful.”

The city reacted by slowing down the relicensing process and forming the Kinni Corridor Project Committee (KCPC), and appointing Horvath and other advocates for dam removal to it, as well as representatives of the local chamber of commerce, the park board, and the locally based Kinnickinnic River Land Trust. They also appointed representatives of a small but vocal group of local opponents of dam removal who raised a variety of concerns, including the loss of hydropower and the need for lakes for migrating geese to swim in.

The KCPC held a number of “technical talks” throughout the community on a variety of topics related to the dams. They also began a visioning process to get public input on what a restored river corridor system could look like with new parks, trails, gardens, and picnic areas in place of the impoundments. That wish list was crafted into a document known as the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Plan.

Horvath said the meetings over the years drew hundreds of people, with the majority supporting dam removal, helping to build momentum for the effort. He said that the ongoing stream monitoring data, which by that time had been in place for 25 years, also helped make the argument for dam removal. Independent analysis of the data showed a slow, continuing upward trend in water temperatures due to climate change, and that if nothing was done about the dams the lower river would eventually lose its trout.

“The data was a key piece of science,” says Welter. “In a lot of dam removals there isn’t a lot of science one way or another. They’re usually driven by economics.”

A hand holding a small brown trout over a net below a dam
The Kinnickinnic is one of the premier trout streams the Driftless Area. In some years, the upper Kinni holds a staggering 8,000 naturally reproducing trout per mile. Below the dams and the City of River Falls, there are about 3,000 wild trout per mile. (Jake Dahlke photo)

In 2018, at the end of the lengthy public engagement process, the city agreed to a compromise that the lower dam would be removed in 2026, and the upper dam and hydro facility would be relicensed for one final time and that by 2035-2040 the Kinni would flow free, unless worsening “ecological conditions” demonstrated a need to speed up its removal.

The resolution passed by the city council also required that any future hydro- or dam-related expenditures of over $15,000 be brought directly to them for review, that the city develop increased stormwater management to reduce thermal and pollutant impacts on the river, and that the city and stakeholder groups would form a public-private partnership to raise funds for dam removal and other projects along the river corridor.

While many dam removal proponents weren’t especially happy with the originally slow timetable for the removal of both dams, Hal Watson, a member of the River Falls City Council at the time, said that the council wanted to strive for unanimity on dam removal, and compromise was the only way it would happen.

“The unanimous vote signaled a commitment by the city that there would be no going back on dam removal,” says Watson, whose campaign for a seat on the council focused, in part, on the environmental health of the Kinni.

Nature Intervenes

In June 2020, a stormfront that had been building over eastern Minnesota dumped more than 7 inches of rain over a 24-hour period in St. Croix County, Wisconsin. Stormwater systems were overwhelmed, roads were washed out, area residents were evacuated from their homes, and a driver was killed in his vehicle when he became trapped in floodwaters.

The rain and resulting runoff sent a surge of water down the Kinni, flowing over the top of the lower dam by more than six feet for a sustained period, and pushing 15,000 cubic yards of the sediment from the reservoir into the lower river. In the fall of that same year, the City of River Falls drew down water levels behind the lower dam, revealing significant structural damage to the wing wall of the lower dam.

Repair of the lower dam was taken off the table when it was learned that the costs would exceed the revenue the city was getting from hydro production. Because the city had already planned to remove the lower dam by 2026, it became clear that it could be removed much sooner.

But the new dam removal timeframe also presented the city and dam removal advocates with a challenge: Because they had planned on a dam removal timetable based on 2026, the money for demolition and stream restoration had not yet been raised.

At the same time the city was considering how to pay for the removal, Wisconsin’s Governor Tony Evers proposed increasing the budget for a statewide municipal dam removal grant funding program from $2 million annually to $5 million, and increasing the individual grant cap from $400,000 to $1 million. But a political fissure between the Democratic governor and the Republican-majority legislature made passage of the budget proposal highly unlikely.

Nonetheless, TU raised money from local chapters and others to hire a lobbyist to attempt to shepherd the governor’s proposal through the political landmines. Western Wisconsin legislators from both political parties supported the budget proposal, including a Republican state representative from River Falls who sat on a key finance committee.

“It was a long, long, long shot and we were too naïve to know that it couldn’t be done,” says Welter, who along with Horvath and representatives of the Wisconsin State TU Council, worked on the legislative effort. “But doggonit, it passed the legislature, was signed by the governor, and made the city eligible for $1 million to remove the lower dam as soon as the FERC license was surrendered.”

The city served the surrendering notice to FERC in the summer of 2021, thereby making them eligible for the grant. They received approval from FERC in February of 2022, and then submitted the grant application to the state. In June of 2022 they were informed that they would receive the full $1 million from the dam removal fund, which will be augmented by the ongoing fundraising effort by TU—including the Twin Cities chapter—and others.

The Army Corps

Demolition of the lower dam was scheduled to begin in late fall 2022, with completion in late spring of 2023, three full years ahead of the original timetable. But just as the mechanics of the removal began to move forward, the Army Corps of Engineers, which had been following the Kinni dam removal process since the beginning, reached out to the City of River Falls and asked if they would be willing to participate in a feasibility study that would explore the removal of both dams, with the demolition of the upper dam taking place first. The study would also consider the ecological restoration of the river corridor by the Corps.

Artwork on the Riverwalk Square Building in River Falls, Wisconsin
Artwork on the Riverwalk Square Building in River Falls, Wisconsin shows how the Kinnickinnic and local residents are closely intertwined. (Jake Dahlke photo)

Welter says from an efficiency, hydrologic, and environmental standpoint, removing the upper dam first makes sense. “In an ideal river restoration situation, you would not have taken out the lower dam first, but that is what the city council voted to do.”

From the standpoint of the Kinni, that “ideal situation” would be to use the lower dam as a catch basin for the acres of sediment that currently sits behind the upper dam, which would be disturbed during its removal, thereby preventing another flush of sediment into the lower river. The sediment captured by the lower dam could then be removed and then that dam would be demolished.

In November of 2022, the River Falls City Council voted unanimously to partner with the Corps in a feasibility study that will consider removing both dams. The study is predicted to take up to a year and a half. It will also likely consider stormwater management and other issues. If the findings are positive, and the city agrees, both dams could potentially be out by 2030.

If, eventually, the Corps and city decide to work together on a project to remove both dams, Corps representatives have said the agency could potentially bring as much as $10 million to the project. The city’s match would be $3.5 million, but two potential Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource grants could defray $2 million of that match.

Horvath says that for the overall health of the river, expediting the removal of the upper dam, even if it would delay the removal of the lower dam, would be a “good deal.”

“I think the Corps views this river as a really unique natural resource that has a lot of public support, and they believe this project would offer an important win for them on a highly visible project,” Horvath says.

The Future

In many ways, the dam removal effort on the Kinni is already a success story, with its final chapter yet to be written. Removal of the lower dam will, without a doubt, provide significant and positive ecological impacts to the lower river. The initial stream monitoring data after the drawdown of the lower impoundment—while it is only one data point—has already shown a July thermal reduction in the lower river of 2.6 degrees. Removal of both dams by 2030 would provide maximum benefits for the river’s coldwater fish.

No matter what the city decides to do, many local residents see the original decision to remove the lower dam, coupled with the current discussion to expedite removal of the upper dam, as a momentum builder not only for removal of both dams but also for the multifaceted streamside restoration that was detailed in the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Plan crafted by the community.

Scott Eickschen, co-owner and manager of a local hotel and a member of the River Falls Chamber of Commerce’s tourism committee, says that dam removal will go far beyond retaining a healthy ecosystem and population of trout. A passionate fly angler, he says that the opportunities dam removal will provide the city are immense, and he points to the corridor plan, which provides a vision for multiple community amenities—such as parks—next to a restored river and a dramatic waterfall. “From a tourism, business, and livability standpoint, dam removal is huge for that entire picture,” he says.

Theoretically, after the feasibility study is completed, the city could decide that it is too expensive to move forward with the expedited removal of both dams, and revert to just removing the lower dam. But as dam removal momentum continues to build in the community, and among the users of the resource, that may prove difficult.

“It’s hard to turn a ship, but once it’s turned, it’s even harder to change course,” says Watson.

Steve Kinsella is the former editor of Trout and is the author of Trout Fishing the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming (Highweather Press, 2000). He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota and spends his spare time wandering the rivers, streams, and fields of the Upper Midwest.

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