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Wild Side: Where are the falls in River Falls?

Falls of the Kinnickinnic River in the 1860s, from a postcard published by Whitney Gallery, St. Paul, Minn.

I can’t recall how many times I’ve been asked to explain to people inquiring about where the waterfalls are in River Falls. The falls of the Kinnickinnic River are hidden under hydropower dams within the city. Now the City of River Falls has a unique opportunity to reconsider its namesake.

After working with regulated rivers for more than 40 years, I appreciate the economic utility and the social and environmental costs of dams. It’s human nature to want to control water.

Starting before statehood, dams were built in Wisconsin to mechanically power sawmills and gristmills, for navigation, water supply, industrial water use and for hydroelectric power. Historically there were many dams built in River Falls on the Kinnickinnic River and on the South Fork. There were as many as six dams in town at one time. Most were rock-and-timber mill dams that were washed out by floods. Only two concrete hydropower dams remain.

Nearly all of the hydropower dams in Wisconsin are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under the Federal Hydropower Act. The FERC authorizes the initial construction of hydropower facilities, issues licenses for operation of hydropower projects, and reconsiders mandatory license renewals every 30 to 50 years.

Hydropower is a renewable energy source. The hydropower dams in River Falls are relatively small. According to the FERC, the River Falls hydro project (both dams) has an authorized generating capacity of 375 KW.

According to Chuck Beranek, Electric Operations Superintendent, the city of River Falls purchases all its electricity on the wholesale market. The hydropower dams in River Falls supply the electrical needs of approximately 150 households. The rest of the electricity used in River Falls is generated elsewhere.

The city of River Falls has applied to the FERC to relicense the two hydropower dams on the Kinnickinnic River. As Wisconsin’s hydropower plants undergo reviews to renew their federal licenses, the state and the public aim to reclaim economic, recreational and environmental benefits lost when the dams were built. Dam owners aim to continue operation and positive generating revenues.

The FERC licensing process requires consultation with stakeholders. This is a unique opportunity. “There aren’t that many situations where you can affect such a range of natural resources in a legally-binding agreement for 30 year,” said Bob Martini, a 30-year DNR water resources veteran now on the Board of the River Alliance of Wisconsin. “It’s worth whatever effort we can give to it.”

Helen Sarakinos, policy and advocacy director of the River Alliance, said, “Wisconsin has been a leader in bringing (hydropower) stakeholders to the table, keeping the issue out of the courts, and balancing needs — economic, ecological and recreational.”

Dams are built structures that get old. Rivers are powerful, constant and patient. Most dams in Wisconsin, including the two hydro dams on the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, are over 40 years old. Dam owners like the city of River Falls face difficult decisions about costly maintenance, major rehabilitation or removal.

Many dams no longer pay their way; their economic reason for being is no longer profitable. Old dams are safety hazards. In addition to increasing risk of failure during floods, many dams are “drowning machines” with dangerous trapping currents. Many communities have removed obsolete dams to once again enjoy the real economic and social benefits of healthy, free-flowing rivers; the scenic beauty, improved water quality, fisheries, recreation, and parks. Wisconsin leads the nation in removing dams, over 130 dams in the past 60 years, with over 50 of removed since 1990.

We are attracted to pools of fresh water, even to a green millpond behind a dam. We are also attracted to clear, cold, and clean free-flowing rivers.

Nearly all of us like to throw the switch to turn on electric lights and enjoy the comforts of an electrified home. Decisions to remove dams are difficult with emotional attachment to artificial water bodies, in-place pollutants in reservoir sediments, historic structures and past investments. There is, however, a wealth of experience in dam removal and stream restoration that can help make the decision-making and planning more objective. Much of that experience comes from here in Wisconsin.

Now is the time for those of us who value the Kinnickinnic River and the city of River Falls to join the city, the DNR, the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, Trout Unlimited Kiap Tu Wish Chapter, the River Alliance of Wisconsin and other interested people to participate in an informed debate about the future of the hydropower dams in River Falls.

Remember your images of free-flowing rivers and waterfalls and the words of Wendell Berry: “Men may dam it and say that they have made a lake, but it will still be a river. It will keep its nature and bide its time, like a caged animal alert for the slightest opening. In time, it will have its way; the dam, like the ancient cliffs, will be carried away piecemeal in the currents.”

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at

--Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist