The City has taken a major stride toward realizing the vision of a restored Kinnickinnic River by securing a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency that provides public engineering services and funding. This spring, the Corps will conduct a feasibility study for the City, the first step in the agency's process for taking on a river restoration project.
In November 2022, the Corps contacted City staff to discuss a grant program that could provide up to $10 million for river restoration.
“Many times during this process, there have been round pegs trying to fit into square holes to bring our vision to life,” City Administrator Scot Simpson said. “The Army Corps is not one of those instances. This is like if you were going to create a federal agency to help us get our vision accomplished – the Army Corps is it. The Army Corps is a round peg in a round hole.”
The journey toward dam removal was set in motion in 2018, when River Falls City Council voted to remove both dams and set a target timeline: Powell Falls by 2026 and Junction Falls between 2035 and 2040.
The Council considered many angles and perspectives in its decision-making process. Hydroelectric power comes with several benefits: it does not use fossil fuels or produce harmful emissions, and it provides a steady supply of clean energy. It’s reliable and highly efficient — much more than solar power, wind power, and coal power. However, dams also have a significant environmental impact: they disrupt ecosystems by blocking migratory routes for fish and creating lower oxygen levels downstream, which can affect not only plant and aquatic life, but also land-based animal species.
The dams have played a key role in the City’s history. In the mid to late 1800s, when milling was the principal industry in River Falls, Junction Falls was built as a privately-owned dam. After a fire burned down the mill in 1900, the City acquired ownership of the dam and founded River Falls Municipal Utilities.
Junction Mill in 1880, when it was a privately-owned dam. Photo courtesy of Pierce County Historical Association.
“Junction Falls dam was the original source of power for the lights on Main Street,” Utilities Director Kevin Westhuis said. “Before we had hydroelectric power, Main Street was lit by gas lamps. At the time, Junction Falls transformed River Falls into a modern city, and Powell Falls followed later in 1920 to provide additional hydroelectric production.” However, while the dams were once transformative for the city, they provide enough electricity to power only about four percent of homes in River Falls today.
The Council’s decision to reexamine the dams was prompted by the then-upcoming expiration of the dams’ Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license, which was set to occur in August 2018.
Dam owners must renew their licenses every 30-50 years to remain in compliance with the federal government. Renewal is accomplished through a complex administrative process that requires significant money and staff time.
“We’re operating under the same process of relicensing as the Hoover Dam,” Simpson said. “It just doesn’t square with the scale and scope of our dams.”
In 2016, as the 2018 license expiration date drew nearer, City leaders and staff began reevaluating the costs and benefits of the dams. To determine a path forward, the City spent approximately two years carrying out a major planning effort that culminated in the creation of the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Plan.
“The river is central to the community – not just centrally located, but central to our being,” Community Development Director Amy Peterson said. “Ensuring that the development of this plan was collaborative and community-based was essential to ensuring that the recommendations would reflect the values and priorities of the community.”