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University of Minnesota, rowing clubs worried about proposal to remove dams from Mississippi River

Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Mississippi River, just downstream of the Ford Parkway bridge between St. Paul, right, and Minneapolis, as seen April 11. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
The Mississippi River runs through the heart of Minneapolis in this Thursday, July 20, 2017, photo. In the foreground is the Interstate 35W bridge. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

ST. PAUL—The effort to turn six miles of the lazy Mississippi River into a fast-moving rapids could damage University of Minnesota property, according to university officials.

In a recent letter, officials listed a series of problems the change could cause, from damage to a library to ruining a favorite practice area for rowing teams.

Matt Kramer, vice president of university relations, said the university doesn't necessarily object to proposals to remove two dams and change the flow of the river. But he wanted to warn the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the dams, about problems that may emerge.

"Actually, we are not sure about the impact, so we are neither for nor against this," said Kramer. "But we wanted the Corps to know there were a number of issues."

Over decades, the university has constructed a variety of buildings, assuming the nearby dams would control water levels. It built along the river from the present-day Third Avenue Bridge to Interstate 94 under a 500-year flood plain.

"The construction is based on history, and in history there is a pool and a lock and a dam," said Kramer.

Corps spokesman George Stringham said Monday that the Corps was gathering all public comments about the proposal, including the letter. He said that the Corps will release a draft of a report about the proposal in early 2019.

River's changing use

In 2015, the Corps shut down the Upper St. Anthony Lock, saying it was no longer needed for barge traffic.

The Corps then raised the possibility of removing that lock and the Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam, both in downtown Minneapolis, and Lock and Dam No. 1, by the Ford Parkway Bridge. The proposal would not affect the Upper St. Anthony Dam owned by Xcel Energy.

This would, advocates said, restore the river to its original state. It would allow the water to tumble past rocks and gorges until it converges with the Minnesota River near Fort Snelling.

Threats to campus

But removing the dams could change the high-water levels near the university. That could potentially damage:

• Caverns in the Elmer L. Andersen Library. In 2000, the University moved about $1 billion in rare books and manuscripts into man-made caves beneath the library. Kramer said the naturally-occurring temperature — 57 degrees — makes it perfect for storage of delicate antique materials.

• The 80-year-old St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, a research and educational facility on Hennepin Island.

• Storm sewers operated by the U of M.

• Two district heating plants, which heat buildings on both sides of the river with steam pipes through several miles of underground tunnels.

• Buildings and a favorite rowing area of local rowing teams and clubs.

'There are implications'

The removal of the dams would lower the levels in the river, said John Gulliver, professor of civil, environmental and geo-engineering.

"That would cause quite a bit of destruction," said Gulliver. Lower water levels could increase the flow of runoff water into the library caverns, and cut off an intake pipe that now serves the laboratory.

"The river is long established in the middle of a city. When you suddenly take it back to being a natural river, there are implications. And someone has to pay for those implications."

Gulliver said the removal of the dams would release silt that has been backing up for decades.

"The industrial sins of the past are located in this sediment," he said. Pollutants include heavier metals and some chemicals which would be washed downstream, said Gulliver.

University's investments

The university's men's and women's rowing teams use the river Monday through Saturday from February through November.

Kramer said the University spent $4.5 million on a boathouse in 2007, and worries that river-level changes might jeopardize it.

Private clubs worry about the proposal, too. "This would make rowing completely impossible," said Lauren Crandall, president of the Minneapolis Rowing Club.

The long rowing shells — costing as much as $50,000 — slide up and down the river at speeds up to 10 mph, she said. They depend on calm waters and are useless in turbulence.

The club has 300 members and works with five teams, including one high school team.

Crandall said her club owns a $1.5 million structure under the Lake Street Bridge that could be threatened.

Club members are exerting pressure on the Corps to abandon the proposal to shut down the dams. Crandall said members have written about 100 letters already — and will continue.

"It's more like a marathon than a sprint," she said.

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