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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Opinion

Kinnickinnic dam licensing application sparks public discussion, possibilities for research

Molly Breitmün

Published April 11th, 2014

On the evening of Monday, March 24, a federal relicensing hearing for the dams on the Kinnickinnic River below Lake George and Lake Louise was held at River Falls’ City Hall. It was standing room only as a great community discussion ensued.

Dr. Jarod Blades, assistant professor of Conservation and Natural Resource Management at UW-River Falls, personally applauds River Falls in fostering a public decision space: “The City did a fantastic job of opening the relicensing process with an inclusive and transparent public involvement process. From a social science research perspective, it would be exciting to build upon the public and community involvement process by exploring local and regional perceptions of the existing dams and potential management alternatives through survey, interview, and focus group methods. By understanding our public values, beliefs, and attitudes about the Kinni watershed, dams, potential removal, and the risks/ benefits surrounding these topics, we could enhance the dialogue between managers and the public and add insights into upcoming decisions pertaining to the watershed.”

An overwhelming amount of people that spoke at city hall expressed the need for scientific data to properly weigh the impacts of both maintaining and removing the dams on the Kinni. To fully answer the questions the community brought forth, research should investigate the social, economic and environmental consequences.

Anecdotal evidence of the historical presence of a metalplating factory led some citizens to worry about the toxicity of the sediment that has accumulated in the reservoir lakes. Research into the records of private enterprise that occurred in this area as well as sediment core sampling of the lakes would be prudent amongst other measures.

Another citizen, who wishes to remain anonymous, considered the high snapping turtle population density in Lake Louise. Although snapping turtles are not endangered nor are they the darlings of environmental causes, this citizen posited that the turtles would lose habitat if the lakebed drained back into a dynamic river way. Conversely, it was also weighed that native black ash, silver maples and frogs might find their habitat expanded if the dams were removed. These are all valid points that need to be backed with impartial data collection.

An economic study that could unravel uncertainty about the dams might consider the annual cost of maintenance of the dams versus the gross cost of dam removal and river restoration. The study should look at how long, or if at all, would it take to recoup the cost of removal due to no longer having to maintain the dams.

The Kinni serves as a central feature of the River Falls’ community identity. Some citizens see that identity as always including Lake George and Lake Louise. Others envision an evolution of the identity by returning the area to cascading falls. The Kinni has long been of great economic value to the community and local businesses; research is needed to project what the effect might be on tourism and other services and products if the dams were removed.

At the city hall discussion, a comment was made suggesting the council room was full in part due to UWRF students simply showing up for extra credit. While this may have been true for some students, others like the members of the UWRF student group, Environmental Corps of Sustainability (ECOS), were there because of their concern for the future of the Kinni.

UWRF is an invaluable resource for trustworthy data, education and energetic volunteerism. Even if UWRF’s contribution were a preliminary product that led to confirmation by professional consultants, the value to students and their relationship with the greater community and the Kinni would be immense.

Dr. Blades shared his personal perspective on the possibilities: “Through the use of UWRF’s new Active Learning Center, we might be able to provide opportunities for expanded public involvement and a space for interactive community forums where the public could actively deliberate with scientists, community leaders, local interest groups, and students. There are also ample opportunities to explore biophysical, ecological, and economic topics related to the dams. Research questions could be related to water resources and water quality, wildlife habitat (e.g., avian and fishery), recreation and tourism, power production and economics, and other ecosystem services. Regarding the discussion of dam removal, a particular interest of mine would be related to ecological restoration, how the watershed functions currently, and how that could change under alternative management scenarios.”

UWRF’s campus, nestled on a Class I trout stream, is ripe for maturing as a living laboratory. Many classes in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences already use the South Fork and the Kinni as fantastic hands-on learning opportunities. Hydrology students have been collecting water quality, temperature and turbidity data above and below the dams for many years. The Entomology students visit the Kinni at least twice within a semester to collect both aquatic and land insect specimens.

From Dr. Blades’ individual perspective, “The process of relicensing the two Kinnickinnic River dams through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the community-wide discussion about potential dam removal, represents a unique research and community engagement opportunity for UWRF. This rare process (every thirty years) is an opportunity to reaffirm and enhance the science-management- community partnerships that exist between the university, City of River Falls, and interested public stakeholders. The university has the capacity to potentially engage in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary evaluation of the complex social-ecological systems surrounding our dams, and explore potential alternatives for the short- and long-term.”

Citizens, students, faculty and non-profits have all entered the discussion. Their continued communication and collaboration could lead to sound research to guide the community in coming to the best decision possible.

Please contact Molly Breitmün at molly.breitmun@gmail.com for constructive feedback and/or opportunities in participation and collaboration.

Molly Breitmün is a non-traditional student majoring in conservation with a minor in GIS. Her interest in campus sustainability was fostered by becoming an undergraduate fellow for the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development as well as by her peers in the Student Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture.

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