What’s the Future of the Ford Dam? And What Might a Change Mean for the Mighty Mississippi?

Discussions that may determine the way the Mississippi River flows from St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul are now underway, and could dramatically alter the magnificent view of the Mississippi River gorge as almost anyone living has always known it.

If that sounds ominous, consider this: These changes could return the river to the “wild,” as it was for thousands of years before the cities took shape.

The dam next to Ford Parkway between Minneapolis and St. Paul (often called the Ford Dam, but officially known as Lock, or Locks, and Dam 1) is being studied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to determine whether the federal government still has an interest in maintaining them. ACOE currently is seeking public comment on the future of the locks and dam at that location.

The last of its public meetings will be held Tuesday, October 25, 6 to 8 p.m., at Dowling Elementary School in Minneapolis.

Lock and Dam 1 looking upstream at the Ford Parkway bridge

Dams on rivers all over the United States are being removed over the past 10 to 20 years at an increasing rate, though none have been as large or as central to a metropolitan area as this one.  Some environmental and ecological groups argue that rivers ought to be “free” and free flowing.  Wildlife, fish and entire ecosystems often benefit from the removal of dams, and the costs of maintaining the structures can be avoided.  Free-flowing rivers can also be safer than dammed rivers for boaters and swimmers.

Consider these recent developments:

Looking east at the hydroelectric plant. The dam is about 35 feet high.

Lock and Dam 1 was built in 1917, and was intended to enhance river navigation between downtown Minneapolis and the larger, deeper river downstream to St. Paul and south. The dam created a large reservoir upstream, with a deep channel for barges. Barges can haul a huge amount of material, making them an efficient means of shipping. Commercial traffic through the locks ended entirely in 2015 and isn’t expected to ever come back, though barges still navigate up the Minnesota River from its confluence with the Mississippi just below Fort Snelling.

Since the 1920s, the dam has also generated electricity with its hydropower capability. It still produces 17 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 30,000 homes; currently the power just goes back into the grid. A private, multibillion-dollar global company (Brookfield Renewable Power) owns and manages the hydroelectric power station, which once powered a nearby Ford manufacturing plant.

An obsolete steam facility sits on the east side of the river.
The locks, which now are used to allow recreational boats access to the river upstream from the dam.

Two other notes on the Mississippi in our area: Water quality has significantly improved since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, authored by Senator Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) and vetoed by President Richard Nixon, with the veto overridden by bipartisan votes in the Senate and House that year.

And 1 million Twin Cities residents get our drinking water from the Mississippi, made possible by the dam at St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis. That structure maintains the water levels upstream and enables the withdrawal of water for use by the city. No changes are planned for the St. Anthony dam.

Questions, and More Questions

Since commercial traffic upstream from the dam has ceased, Congress has asked ACOE to study the “disposition” of the facility. “Disposition,” in this case, means transferring the ownership and responsibility for the dam to someone else: a city, county, state or other governmental unit or agency. (There may be tribal interests, as well.) The new “owner” could do anything with the dam; leave it as is, take it out entirely or partially, or make any number of other modifications.

Here’s a good summary of the possible futures and the related issues.

I have talked with several people in ACOE and asked some of the many questions that come up as one thinks of a project like this. In most cases, the answer has been “we don’t know.”

Among my questions:

  1. What would the river look like if the dam were removed? The first time I heard of this possibility was in a 2015 Star Tribune article by Steve Berg. Berg described the river after dam removal as a kayaking or paddling river, with rapids. That is a far different kind of river than we see today — which is more like a slow-moving lake than a wild, free flowing river. Is that an accurate description of what it would look like? I have found several pictures of the river prior to dam construction: Is that what we’d see? It seems hard to predict what it would actually look like.
  2. What is on the bottom of the current river? It is assumed to be a lot of silt and sediment, likely containing pollutants. Unless removed, those could flow downstream and cause problems for communities downriver.
  3. The water level upstream from the dam would certainly be altered. What impacts could that have immediately downstream? Immediately coming to mind are areas near downtown St. Paul, where the last several decades have seen significant development along the river along Shepard Road and on the West Side. Suburban communities like South St. Paul, Newport and St. Paul Park could be impacted, too.
  4. What kinds of boats could navigate the river after dam removal? Just canoes and kayaks? What about motorboats and fishing boats? The rowers who currently use the river would likely have to relocate. (Local rowing clubs have urged ACOE to scuttle any plans to remove the dam. ) What about commercial/tour vessels like the Jonathon Padelford?
  5. What would be the impact on wildlife and fish, including eagles and other waterfowl and mussels? Could Asian carp pass upstream with a lower level of water?
  6. What would lowering the river mean for the bridges (Lake Street, Ford and others)?
Below the dam: Is this what the river would look like?
Meeker Island before the dam was built: Is this what the river would look like? This photo shows the river between the Franklin and Lake Street bridges. (The Meeker Island dam was rendered obsolete by the construction of Lock and Dam 1 and was abandoned only five years after completion.)

This is a huge and complicated project involving many levels of government, many interested groups and, on some level, all the citizens of the Twin Cities. The ACOE study itself is not going to be finished until 2024 at the earliest. Depending on its recommendations, Congress would have to approve and fund any major changes. Actual construction would also take years.

When I asked if I would see the dam removed in my lifetime, I was met with wry smiles. (I’m 71, so that might have had something to do with it.)  Clearly, everyone understands this to be a long-term project.

But it is a good time for citizens who love the river to become familiar with the issues and get involved in the conversation. The last of the currently scheduled public meetings is on Tuesday, October 25, 6 to 8 p.m. at Dowling Elementary School, 3900 West River Parkway, Minneapolis. Written comments can be directed to the Army Corps of Engineers

About Dan Gjelten

Pronouns: he/him/his

Dan was born and educated in Iowa but has lived in St. Paul’s Highland and Merriam Park neighborhoods since 1974. He has run, biked and walked tens of thousands of miles around the entire Twin Cities and elsewhere in the last four decades. He is a retired academic librarian and writes about bike touring (https://confluence.blog) with his wife, Lisa. Main interests: music, literature, long distance biking, trees, rivers and fresh air.