Kinni River Corridor Project

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As the Kinnickinnic Corridor Project continues, the fourth "Kinni Tech Talk," explained the dam relicensing process to attendees. The goal of these tech talks (six in all) is to educate those interested in the different aspects of the River Corridor planning process. This talk held Thursday, May 18, gave an overview of hydropower, discussed the River Falls hydroelectric facilities and the relicensing process. Mark Lobermeier, of SEH Inc., and Lesley Brotkowski, a senior ecologist with TRC Consulting were the presenters.


Brotkowski said there are hydroelectric projects in almost every state. They make up 8 percent of the total generating capacity in the United States, and 48 percent of all renewable generation. In hydroelectric dams, electricity is produced through machines that run by moving water. The dam takes the water from a higher elevation to a lower elevation which moves the turbines that produce electricity.

River Falls hydroelectric facilities River Falls' two hydroelectric dams are the Junction Falls and Powell Falls facilities. Junction Falls powers about 169 homes, and Powell Falls provides power to 101 homes. Brotkowski and Lobermeier said that from 1986 to 2016, the dams have had a net revenue of $1,063,394, an average of about $34,300 per year. From 2010-2016, the dams have had a net revenue of $457,700, or an average of about $65,400 per year. Factors in future cost projections include river flow, the cost of wholesale power, retail rate for power, operations and maintenance costs, capital investment, costs related to licensing and permitting, and other allocated costs such as labor and insurance.

Relicensing process

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) inspects and licenses private, municipal and state hydroelectric projects. The relicensing process for existing hydroelectric dams usually takes about five to 5.5 years. River Falls received a 30-year license for Junction and Powell Falls in 1988. It was originally set to expire Aug. 31, 2018, but the city was granted a five-year extension for the relicensing process, allowing the city to take time to decide what to do with the dams. Brotkowski said the city has two options: relicense the hydroelectric dams or surrender its FERC license.

To relicense, the city would submit an application for a new license, and one or both dams would remain in place on the river and continue to generate power under the terms of a new FERC license.

Brotkowski outlined pros and cons. Pros included low-cost renewable energy, no cost for dam removal and restoration, the reservoirs (Lakes George and Louise) act as stormwater ponds, the dams limit the spread of aquatic invasive species upstream, and this would maintain the status quo. Cons included water quality concerns, trapped sediment, fishery maintenance costs and the status quo would be maintained. Relicensing would likely cost the city around $150,000 to $200,000. That does not include the cost of any required maintenance.

License surrender

Surrendering the license could include removing the dams or maintaining the dams, Brotkowski said. A license may only be surrendered with agreement between licensee and FERC. The surrender process can be complex, due to environmental implications. FERC would either approve or deny the surrender, and the city would have to fulfil any requirements FERC makes in order to renew its license. FERC may require mitigation for the impacts of dam removal, Brotkowski said.

If the license is surrendered, FERC has to notice the license surrender and another applicant could apply for and take control of the hydroelectric facilities, at which point the city would lose control of the hydroelectric dams.

Pros for surrender with dam removal include restoring the river, fishery water quality and parks, enhanced river recreation, no dam maintenance cost, and the aesthetic change. Cons include loss of renewable electricity production, cost of dam removal and restoration, sediment release, need to address stormwater runoff, opening the river to certain invasive aquatic species, and an aesthetic change. Brotkowski said license surrender would cost about $250,000 to $400,000. That does not include the cost of removal itself.

Community questions

After the presentation, the audience was invited to ask questions, one at a time. Many questions revolved around money. One person asked if the dams were profitable more often than not, over the past 31 years. Lobermeier said that's a pretty even split. He said he's seen recorded as many years with strong, positive cash flow, as he's seen years barely broke even, or have a negative cash flow. Many people questioned whether the city's financial analysis was "complete," saying they viewed what the city has shown them as accurate for the numbers that were included, but asked that more data be added. City Administrator Scot Simpson was quick to say that the city's financial analysis was the "most accurate picture of expenses" that the city has at this time.

"It's not true to say that is not an accurate picture of the costs," Simpson said.

Retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fisheries biologist Dan Wilcox, River Falls, said he would be interested to find out what the city paid originally to set up the dams in the first place. Another resident asked what effect the removal of the dams could have on city electric rates. Utility Director Kevin Westhuis said the effect would likely be "fairly insignificant." Wilcox also mentioned several studies requested by stakeholders when the city applied for a license extension in 2013, and asked why not all of those studies had been completed yet.

Lobermeier and Brotkowski said the city has completed several studies, and that more studies are to come. They also mentioned that the FERC relicensing and license surrender processes includes time during which studies would be completed.

Maggie Watson, River Falls, asked why studies would be completed after the license renewal, or the license surrender application is approved, and not before. Brotkowksi said that FERC may have additional questions for a city, so additional studies may be required, and the FERC processes also gives a municipality the opportunity to include additional studies even after the license renewal or surrender application is completed. She also said the city is able to continue doing studies prior to applying for either relicensing or license surrender.

Allison Page, River Falls, mentioned the Kinnickinnic River being a Class 1 trout stream. She said she doesn't' see a lot of people trout fishing in River Falls, and asked how many trout there are in the city limits, particularly in Lake George. Lobermeier and Brotkowski said they thought it wasn't likely there would be trout in Lake George, but more lake-type fish and wildlife. Page asked if that meant the Kinni "was not as fine in River Falls" as it is on either side of the dams. Lobermeier said that would be correct.