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Utility Advisory Board stakes a stance on dam question

A crowd packed the River Falls City Council Chambers Monday, Jan. 15 during the River Falls Utility Advisory Board's regular meeting, with many people standing along the back and side of the room. During the meeting the UAB voted to make a recommendation regarding relicensing the city's two hydroelectric dams.

The UAB voted to recommend relicensing the Junction Falls hydro facility, and surrendering the license for the Powell Falls facility and removing the dam at some point in the future.

This was one of three scenarios presented to the UAB by consultant Mark Lobermeier of Short Elliot Hendrickson.

The options were as follows:

• Relicensing of both dams. This would include seeking a 40-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which would allow but not require the city to continue to produce electricity. The estimated cost is more than $750,000.

• Surrender both licenses, decommissioning and removing both dams. This would eliminate any future power generation by the city after the dams expire in August 2023. The estimated cost is $8 million.

• Relicense and maintain Junction Falls dam and hydro facility, and surrender the Powell Falls license, and remove the dam at some point in the future. This would include seeking a 40-year license for Junction Falls. This includes the "timely" removal of the Powell Falls facility, and stream/habitat restoration. The estimated cost for this is $1.9 million.

During a special public comment time, 29 people spoke, from River Falls, from nearby towns, and from out of town.

Many spoke in favor of surrendering the licenses, or of decommissioning and removing both dams. Though the audience was asked at least three times not to "cheer or jeer," applause and even a few "boos" could be heard after some of the audience members spoke.

The following is a sampling of what some visitors had to say.

Surrender

Many of those in favor of surrendering the licenses voiced concerns about the health of the river.

Several said the dams slow the river down and spread water out over a larger area, causing the lower river to be slightly colder in winter and slightly warmer in summer, than the upper river. Many said this affects the quality of the trout stream.

"We as a community need to take extra measures to protect this river," said Peter Davis, of River Falls.

Several speakers said the dams were outdated and it's time for them to be removed.

Judi Foster-Babcock, a lifelong resident of River Falls and member of River Falls' founding family (the Fosters), said "there comes a time for everything to change."

She encouraged the UAB to recommend surrender and removal of the dams.

Some said the dams were inefficient, and asked the city to instead invest in other forms of renewable energy.

Supporters of dam removal also said a free-flowing river would make for a better view, and would draw more people, particularly younger people, to town.

College student Nate Dodge mentioned seeing a "concrete wall" at Glen Park after hearing all about the river's assets.

"It's a good concrete wall. It's well designed," he said. "But I think a restored river would be nicer."

Steve Doge, of River Falls, spoke about the lifecycle of the dams, and said relicensing the dams for a 40-year license would mean significant investments in dam maintenance.

Michael Page, president and spokesperson of the group Friends of the Kinni asked the UAB to consider the 1,987 signatures on a petition asking the city to remove the dams, as well as many others who responded in favor of removing dams in a survey.

Some also said removing the dams would help create an "identity" for River Falls.

Relicensing

Those in favor of relicensing the dams voiced concerns about paying for the license surrender and dam removal process, which the UAB packets indicated would cost around $8 million.

"My grandma told me 'Money dont' grow on trees,'" said Larry Larson. "If the dams weren't here the town wouldn't be here."

They also spoke in favor of the hydroelectricity produced by the dams.

"You've got free electricity," said Neal Gilbertson. "There's no reason for removing it, and if you do remove it, you got all the sludge in the bottom of it. You're gonna have big trouble there."

Gilbertson was referring to the buildup of sediment in both impoundments.

Karen Hansen, Town of Troy, said past councils made a commitment to the dams when they were reconstructed in the early 90s. She said the dams have served the city well, and asked that the UAB uphold the commitments and financial investments made by previous councils.

Bill Hansen pointed out that the Kinni is still a Class 1 trout stream, despite the 1 or 2 degree temperature change.

Some also see Lake George and Lake Louise as assets to the city.

Other concerns

Some others said they were not sure the city had been given enough information to make a decision. The numbers in the resolution the UAB considered were only preliminary numbers.

This concern was shared by UAB members Duane Pederson and Kevin Swanson.

Member and council representative Diane Odeen said she felt the UAB was being asked to make a recommendation on a policy decision.

Pederson voiced concern about the UAB's decision going to the Kinni Corridor Project Committee, and made a motion to send the UAB's recommendation directly to the City Council.

"We answer to the council," he said. "We do not answer to a secondary committee."

Odeen, as a council member, said the council established the Kinni Corridor committee for a reason.

"We gave them the authority to look at all the information and give recommendation to the council," She said. "The city council knows what we're doing."

She said she'd like to allow the committee to do what it was created to do. She also noted that many city council members had attended the UAB board meeting.

Pederson's motion failed.

After discussing the estimated costs, the council voted to recommend option 3, relicensing the Junction Falls hydro facility, surrender of the Powell Falls license, and removal of the Powell Falls dam in the future.

UAB board member Tim Thum noted the dams would need to be removed at some point.

"It's a matter of when, and how much money we invest in them, how much revenue we get out of them," he said.

He questioned whether the dam would bring in enough revenue to pay for the cost of relicensing and any necessary repairs.

The board also clarified with Lobermeier and Utility Director Kevin Westhuis that the dollar amounts in their packets were preliminary and were based only on the cost of dam relicensing or surrender, and associated work, such as dam removal, in options 2 and 3. They did not include work on the river or river corridor.

The resolution adopted by the UAB will be shared with the Kinni Corridor Project Committee, according to city communications manager Mary Zimmermann.

"The Committee will consider the resolution as part of its decision-making regarding their recommendation to the City Council for a final vote on Feb. 27," she said. "The UAB resolution will likely be included in the staff report accompanying the Committee's recommendation."

For more information on the Kinni Corridor project, visit www.kinnicorridor.org.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(715) 426-1048
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