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 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.”