Viewpoint: Restore the lakes, but leave the “DAM things” alone
Editor's note: This is an extended version of the Bill Hansen viewpoint published in the Sept. 28 edition of the Journal. Viewpoint submissions have a 650-word limit, so this is the letter in its entirety.
I am responding to comments in the Viewpoint section of last week’s River Falls Journal titled “Dam advocate group spreads misinformation at Tech Talk.”
The version in the printed newspaper was limited to 650 words, but I didn’t think that was enough space to accurately discuss the accusation of “misinformation.”
Dig last week’s Journal out of the recycle bin or follow the attached Journal link so you can reread the old Viewpoint section, and then join me as I offer a different view. It’s a bit long, but hopefully not too boring. The term “author” will be used to describe the person who originally
wrote the letter claiming the dam brochure is full of “misinformation.” I believe he wanted to use another word, but maybe at the end of this letter the readers can answer this fill-in-the-blank question: “Who or what is full of what?”
An answer like “The lake is full of sediment” could be one possible option.
I will paraphrase the letter’s first complaint. The author was disturbed to see a small group of dam advocates passing out brochures at a City-sponsored educational Kinni Corridor Tech Talk meeting about the future of the Kinni. He said he found it “most inappropriate.”
I looked back through the back issues of the RF Journal, but couldn’t find any letters from this author complaining when the Friends of the Kinni (FOTK) advocates passed out their brochures to people entering the first Kinni Tech Talk meeting, along with asking people to sign a petition requesting dam removal. Passing their FOTK brochures out to people entering the meeting certainly seemed like a tricky way to try to hook up with the Kinni Corridor Project and gain implied credibility. Was the author really disturbed by “dam” advocates passing out their brochures, or only disturbed when the “dam” brochures contained information he didn’t want people discussing? In my opinion, the dam advocates were simply borrowing a page from the FOTK playbook. In fact, the “dam” advocates waited until the final night of the six-night Kinni Tech Talk series to offer their brochures to people as they exited the meeting. I actually feel both groups were merely exercising their right to free speech. Is exercising free speech considered “most inappropriate?”
People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Who or what is full of what?
The “Junction Falls Cascade” or “dam” brochure was the result of months of research, dam and hydro tours, river walks, town meetings, and discussions with experts and advisors. This process was followed by numerous revisions to the brochure to ensure all data was accurate and all sources were footnoted. All of this done by one concerned old retired individual, and at his own expense. He simply wondered….”Do our functioning city-owned hydro-electric dams really need to be destroyed and the lakes emptied to improve River Falls, and would that really benefit the Kinni? Are there possible solutions that provide greater benefits without risking the already “premier trout stream” we currently enjoy?” No corporate sponsors, no personal agendas, no cravings for attention and awards, just a keen interest to explore all options before big decisions are made, valuable town assets are eliminated, and millions of dollars are spent.I didn’t create the “dam” brochure, my father did. He will say I didn’t need to bother responding to the letter, and that differing opinions just show people care deeply about the Kinni issue. We should all listen to our fathers, and they usually have sound advice. However the condescending and argumentative tone used within that letter begged for a response, and I felt I needed to reply. We share the same name, William Hansen, so if anyone has a question about my letter, direct them to me. Just to clarify, he is the distinguished-looking older gentleman with a full head of grey hair and a grey beard, often found telling Ole and Lena jokes to anyone who will listen. I am the “stocky” one, with a mustache and a bald spot proudly inherited from both of my hairless grandfathers.
I lived, as a toddler, in the white house that still stands next to the River Falls Boy Scout Lodge while my Dad completed his Master’s degree at UW-RF. The backyard cliff down to the South Fork meant my Mom was always close at hand.
I was waiting for my Mom to pick me up after I had worked a long hot summer day detassling corn for Jacques Seed when I caught my first Kinni trout. That was almost 40 years ago now, and I was a young teen. I dropped a hand line, baited with a tiny worm, through a gap in some fallen logs while I balanced above a deeper pool in the South Fork, just below the Swinging Bridge. I also knew Bruce Foster, and he would have approved of this less-elegant but effective fishing technique. I have caught a handful of trout since then, but I make no claims to be a trout fisherman. Walleye and panfish offer tastier rewards.
My wife and I have rented kayaks in town so the kids could have a better knowledge of our town and experience the river, but I don’t own any kayaks. Fairly typical story for many who grew up here, and then chose to stay and raise families in RF. Life is busy, and there are so many activities and hobbies to enjoy.
Ok, back to the letter response. Like a yearly visit to the dentist, it might sting a bit, but hopefully we can drill down to the root of the problem and find a solution that makes everyone smile!
The author complained about calling the water held behind the dams “lakes.” I thought it was a fairly silly comment, but the instant the River Falls Wisconsin 2017-2018 City Map or the DNR website labels the lakes as “Impoundment George” and “Impoundment Louise” I will definitely start using those classy names. I’m sure it was just an attempt to take any positive image away from the lakes, even their name. Throughout the rest of this letter, I will simply use the term “lake.” The author said that “the lakes are nearly filled with sediment and no longer provide a sediment basin for the upper Kinni and 25 city storm drains.” Obviously that confirms that the lakes were once much deeper, but after 110 years of faithfully containing run-off and acting as a sediment basin, the lakes need our help restoring them to their original depth!
As the author also stated, “Dredging and dredged material placement is very costly and difficult.” Everyone agrees the sediment must be removed to improve the overall health of the river and lakes. Hudson recently learned that lesson when they breached the Willow River Dam and sent sediment pouring down to damage Lake Mallalieu. Now $18 million is needed to rebuild that same Willow River Dam. Are we willing to risk the same fate for the Lower Kinni?
Even radically changing the city storm sewer system behind Main Street and creating three new holding “ponds” (in place of Lake George) to help limit storm sewer run-off wouldn’t stop farm field erosion from entering the Kinni from the north. I recently read somewhere that rivers are powerful, constant, and patient. I read they even slowly wear away rock cliffs. What will the Kinni eventually do to clay-lined sediment ponds and rebuilt stream beds? Sounds like constant maintenance and yearly upkeep expenses if the lake is removed and a new stream bed and ponds are “created.” Are they actually called “ponds” or are these also some version of “impoundments,” or maybe just good old “swamps?” So many technical terms to keep track of in this project.
I believe FOTK and the dam advocates both agree some level of sediment removal and lake area reconstruction are part of any path forward, no matter the cost. Moot point, expensive or not it needs to be done.
Nice, I think we just worked together to create the first action item on our shared bucket list. 1.) Address excess sediment build-up in Lake George. The author’s expertise would make him a valuable asset for this project. Could the current compost/brush collection areas, southwest of the school bus garage, make a potential site for dredged material drain-off? That seems like a perfect, nearby, secluded spot close to Lake George. No trucks running through town, minimal impact to the rest of the city. This dredging and lake restoration process is not a small issue. It is a big, complicated, expensive task. An estimate is that 160,000 cubic yards of mostly sandy sediment is filling Lake George. To dredge it you must move it somewhere and then allow the water to drain off, and then decide what to the do with the big pile of dry sediment. Maybe the sediment, once drained, could stay right there in the back corner of the brush/waste collection site? I think it was originally an old gravel pit decades ago anyway.
Right now our beloved sediment is slowly drowning under Lake George. Let’s all work together to “FREE the SEDIMENT!” That was childish, but hopefully made the readers smile. I know I did when I typed it.
Let’s move on to water temperature. The dam brochure quotes directly from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report titled, “Kinnickinnic River At River Falls, Wisconsin Thermal Study.” That sure sounds like a knowledgeable and trustworthy organization. The introduction of the report states, “The Kinnickinnic River, a premier trout stream known for dense populations of brown trout, is at risk from the effects of a rapidly growing community. As the community grows and creates more impervious land cover, the Kinnickinnic River would most likely be subjected to increased runoff flows and elevated temperatures.” So, if we want the city to grow we will apparently need to depend on the lakes even more.
The study placed monitors at points on the river and collected temperature data after two summer storms, which represent the worst case scenario for warming the river. The report says, “The temperature spikes seen between Quarry Road and Lake George were probably due to storm sewers discharging heated runoff….” It goes on to state, “The temperature regime seen at Junction Station (below the dam) was primarily an outcome of mixing outflows from the Junction dam and the South Fork Kinnickinnic. The temperatures observed at Junction Station were cooler than the temperature observed above Lake George at Division Station and at the South Fork Kinnickinnic Station. The dam’s discharge at Lake George effectively dampened the temperature spikes seen above the reservoir and overwhelmed, with much larger flows, the
warmer temperature contributed by the South Fork Kinnickinnic at Junction Station.”
While I am not an expert in the aquatic sciences, the report seems pretty clear. Let’s think through what the official U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report really was saying.
Spring-fed cold water flows down the Kinni from the north, enters town by Quarry Road and starts warming up from the extra water pouring in from the storm sewers. The storm sewer water soaks up the heat from the warmer surfaces in the city, like roads, sidewalks, shingles, and steel.
I would think at some point the rain would cool the impervious surfaces down enough and they would stop adding heat, but for quite a while they continue to add heat to the water. So, because of the impact of the city, the Kinni is getting warmer as it travels down to Lake George. The river then spreads out and the current slows as it enters Lake George. This is when the heavier sediment that has been carried along in the current finally has a chance to start settling out and
sinks to the bottom of the lake.
The water in the lake is coolest at the bottom and warmest at the top. So when the lake water, taken from below the surface level of Lake George, enters the penstock (a big tube that is 6-by-6 feet across according to the FOTK brochure) and flows down into the hydros below the dam it is cooler than when it entered Lake George. Of course, none of the water at this point could possibly be cooler than the fresh spring-fed water found north of town. However long ago people put a city on the banks of the river, and the river has no choice but to travel through town. We can’t go back in time and live elsewhere, we just need to help the river as best we can.
The official study shows that the dam discharge system helps cools the Kinni. The South Fork has no bottom-draw dam to help it, so the heated water and sediment it carries travels through town until it joins the cooler water from the penstock below the dam. The sediment brought in by the South Fork now enters Lake Louise. Look after any big storm, even the excess water overwhelming the dam will be visually clearer than the brownish water in the South Fork under the Swinging Bridge. Does that mean we really need bigger penstock volume, because the dam can’t completely handle a big storm, and that is when (warmer) surface water overwhelms it and runs over the top of the dam.
The study was dated 2003, and the sediment has now been building for 14 more years. The ability of the lakes to collect sediment and help cool the water can’t continue forever without our help.
In a classic bit of irony, the author mentions in his complaint letter that “he worked for decades with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” so you would assume that he probably even knows the experts that performed the study and wrote the Kinnickinnic Temperature Report. I assume they are good at their job? It sure is a small world.
Trout enthusiasts take note. Apparently the Junction Falls dam isn’t actually the culprit, the growth of the city is the real problem. The dams are trying to help cool the river by drawing their water from as deep as the lake depth will allow them. Less sediment equals restored lake depth which in turn creates colder water to feed the hydro system. Voice your opinions, do your own research, don’t always believe urban legends or rumors about the poor “sweaty” trout being boiled alive in the scorching hot Lower Kinni. Remember the dams are doing the best they can to help cool them.
I agree with the author, the idea of adding a decorative fountain in the lake probably would increase the lake water temperature immediately around it. Makes sense. I would think it would be a minimal impact all the way across the lake at the exit point, but do not know that for sure. It may also turn over the water and aerate the water in the quiet corners of the lake. Could that help make those spots less “scummy”? Would deeper lakes be less “scummy”? We would have to weigh the advantages of the pleasant sounds and visual attraction of a small fountain in the lake with any projected temperature impact.
I do agree the east corner of Lake George is not visually appealing. After a long summer, the term “scummy” seems like a nice choice. That area really needs some help.
The rarely visited and rarely discussed Lake Louise, with the exception of a string of big red buoys in one section is a very pretty area. I’m sure since it is slow and wide trout don’t frequent it. I’m sure it isn’t the best for water quality. But it is a quiet pretty place lined with trees. Can we extend the nice paved walking path that travels from Glen Park to the area where the Kinni and South Fork meet to also make a loop out onto the peninsula of Lake Louise? On a quiet evening you can walk all the way out on the Lake Louise peninsula and the only odd, unnatural sound that carries across the lake is from pickle balls bouncing on the courts in Glen Park. I know it is adding another impervious surface, but right now it is a harder place to visit for less mobile folks.
Around the globe new invasive species keep showing up in unexpected and unwanted spots. Would encountering 20-foot and 30-foot high dams provide a protective barrier for the Upper Kinni from new threats traveling upstream from the St. Croix? I am told Asian carp don’t like small streams, so hopefully they won’t be leaping upstream to eat trout eggs. But the next invader might love smaller streams with easy waterfalls to scale. Wouldn’t dam removal place all 22 miles of the river into one basket of risk? Maybe our dams aren’t the hated villains in this story.
I agree the area below the Junction dam is not pretty. It is a shame that the expose rocks that once made up our small waterfall lie basically dry, unless a big storm hits. It is a shame that we can’t have it all. More often than not, the logical and practical option is not the most beautiful or romantic choice. That is why we drive more minivans and pickup trucks in Wisconsin than sports cars. Sports cars also provide summer fun, but the trusty and rusty four-wheel drive pickup carries you home in every season.
Our dams do provide positive revenue. We own them and any power they generates means less we have to buy from someone else. Hydroelectric energy is definitely greener than coal. It is true the dams do generate only about 2 percent of the town’s energy demand. However they can run 24/7, rain or shine in all seasons. Ask the southern U.S. or Puerto Rico if having a little power is important in an emergency?
The author suggested solar or wind farms as a better option.
It would take six solar panel systems, like the one north of town, to match the amount generated by our current hydros. I figure we can count on the complaining author to propose some sites within eyesight of his own home for future solar systems or a wind farm. Those are so beautiful to look at, and I bet they really boost neighboring property values. Anyway, in my opinion, any lake looks prettier than a bunch of solar arrays or wind farms blocking view of our rural landscapes.
How do solar arrays or wind farms hold up in a tornado? How much do they cost to build or repair? They are not “free energy” either. Everything is a balance of many factors.
Wind turbines kill lots of birds and bats, even raptors like eagles. Birdwatchers like to see their birds alive, not scattered in a pile under a wind turbine. At a Kinni talk they said visiting birdwatchers could bring in lots of tourism revenue.
The brochure doesn’t claim the dam is a waterfall. It uses the term “cascade” or “falling water feature” or “falls.” Just didn’t want the author to say I was dodging these very important grammatical points.
Not everyone in River Falls wants the river full of visiting kayakers every summer weekend. Do trout fisherman smile and wave when kayaks appear, or do they consider making other hand gestures, and then politely pack up and drive to different quieter local trout streams? What would bring them back? Serious trout fisherman tell me they are seeing a shift, with more people fishing the Rush and Trimbelle because there are too many kayakers on the Kinni. They say the trout shut down for a while each time kayaks go through their pools. Even the author has written about fishing the Trimbelle recently…were fewer kayaks part of the reason? Does that help or hurt our local tourism? There must be a simple equation that covers that an increase in kayakers leads to a decrease in trout fisherman. Which is more important to our city image and identity? Kayaks or trout? There are just so many things to consider. There really are no simple fixes.
If kayakers and kayak companies want a straight path through town to allow customers a full day experience, could one package include drop off above town, paddle into town, with a stop for lunch downtown on a nice dock built behind Family Fresh. This would help create more tourism revenue for local restaurants. Meanwhile the kayak company portages their kayaks around on trailers so that after lunch, and hopefully a bathroom break, they continue the journey from below the Powell dam to the Clifton Hollow exit point. A whole day trip without bathrooms sounds challenging for most. Remember it is not “PEE the KINNI”, so a mid-trip bio-break seems logical and less messy for the river. Maybe the author was wading in the Kinni when a kayaker passed by that wasn’t able to make it a restroom in time. That might cause a 4 degree localized temperature increase….another possible source of warmer water?
Which activities bring the most visitors to town? Probably the big college events, the Art on the Kinni show, car shows, River Falls Days, and the Bacon Bash events. Would those events have larger attendance numbers if we had a small waterfall, framed by a cement bridge, for people to admire? Is the bridge the next item on the removal list?
We need to spend some money to help repair and improve our lakes. “Friends of the Kinni” have already started finding donors and grants for river-related improvements. Even if the final decision is to keep the dams for the foreseeable future, I hope the people who truly love the river will still be willing to help.
Then we can return to other positive goals like stocking food shelves, helping struggling families, buying locally, dining locally, or using local medical services. Bigger goals like creating activities and fun venues for our teens to enjoy safely so they will look back fondly on River Falls and return to raise their own families might have long-term value. These seem like very important steps to creating a healthy thriving small town. Spending our energy and money on summer hobbies for a small number of people seems like a luxury. We can’t afford it all. What is the best use of our time, effort and money? How big do we want to grow? At what point does the town grow too big and lose the small town charm that made us decide to make River Falls our home?
I will close with a quote that I will attribute to Wendell Berry’s more obscure toothless relative Gummi Beary, “A man may write it, and think that he has made a point, but until proven it will still just be an opinion. In time truth, like a river, will have its way, and negative comments and exaggerated opinions will be carried away in the currents.”
Thank you for your time in reading this response. I would have been perfectly content to attend the upcoming meetings and offer some of these same ideas, but after last week a timely reply to the author’s letter felt necessary. Now that we both have offered our opinions, let’s move on to helping the Kinni.
I encourage everyone to attend the upcoming Kinni Corridor Project Planning sessions - Community Design Workshop to be held Oct. 25-28 at the River Falls Public Library. If only one group voices their opinion, then only one conclusion will be reached. These meetings will shape the path forward. Don’t sit back and assume someone else will take care of it. Get involved, read reports, talk over coffee, attend meetings, write to city council members, and make positive suggestions. Work to find option “C.” We need to brainstorm together to find the common good for our shared home. Determine the best decisions for our town, our local businesses, our residents and visitors, and of course the trout and the Kinnickinnic River! Thank you.
For more information visit www.kinnicorridor.org and KinniCorridorLakeGeorgeAlliance.org or on the Kinni Corridor Lake George Alliance Facebook page.
To read the opposing viewpoint by Dan Wilcox, titled "Dam advocate group spreads misinformation at Kinni Corridor Tech Talk," click here.