Monday, June 8, 2009

Grand Rapids Before the Dams

by Molly Macgregor

Joseph Nicollet visited the Headwaters four years after Schoolcraft, and in his journal he recorded the falls at Pokegema, which now are inundated by the dams near Highway 2 and at the Blandin Dam.

“The falls of the Mississippi represent a drop of nine feet over a stretch of 260 or eighty-six yards of river. The falls form three tiers. The first one is a five-foot drop stretched over an incline twenty to twenty-five feet long. The other four feet dived the remaining distance into two sections, each one dropping another two feet. “These falls are a lovely prelude to the Falls of St. Anthony, five hundred miles downstream. They have the additional advantage of giving the traveler the sensation one feels only in mountains, this in a region where there are none. One’s imagination, dulled by a monotonous and tiring navigation over so many slow winding rivers, is enlivened by the sight of the impetuous torrent.”

There is an outcropping of bedrock above the first dam. It is part of the western terminus of the Mesabi Iron Range, and the only bedrock visible in the river corridor. The geological formation of the range reaches almost to Longville. In this whole area, springs percolate to the river, and its tributaries the Vermillion and Prairie; many of the springs are stained orange and red by iron.

Rivers are meant to flood, to dry up and to meander. When a river floods, it spreads out on its flood plain and that becomes a place for pike to spawn, for ducks to build nests, for plants to grow. When it dries, the upland mammals move in to eat or loaf.

The Mississippi’s delta in the Gulf of Mexico was created by the sediment the river carried with it and dumped when it hit the ocean. The river’s course was changed, so it doesn’t dump dirt there, and coastal Louisiana lost its barrier islands and protection against fierce hurricanes.

We want to live on rivers, but we aren’t very good at living with them. Today, people are taking dams out and letting rivers meander; that brings back habitat for fish and fowl, and it will ultimately keep our rivers clean and healthy.

Molly MacGregor was the Director of the Mississippi Headwaters Board for 12 years. She's the author of "The Mississppi Headwaters Guidebook".

1 comment:

Gord said...

This began as a "Tweet" to Scott.

@kaxeScott: the present Upper Mississippi network of structural impoundments may have made sense in the 19th Century to European settlers and exploiters.

Today there are competing interests and govt entities that appear deadlocked with a status "quo/stuck." Below St Anthony Falls, it is coal and grain barge traffic that call the tune. Cheap Illinois coal and cheaper competitive grain haulage with the railroads.

Then there are flood control, municipal water suppy, and drainage ( mfg & waste treatment plant outlets on the river ) as competing uses and objectives for river managers.

Recreational uses are last in practically every economic cost/benefit analysis.

Historically, we have given the U.S.Army control of this major geographic, economic, and natural resource. The have done an inconsistent and political - in the worst sense of that word - job.

As a result we have a contaminated river, prone to flooding, and disgusting to visit along hundreds of miles of its banks.

It doesn't have to remain that way.

The Twenty First Century is already being recognized globally as the Water Century, (Post Petroleum).

Minnesota has a major part to play in better stewardship of our water heritage.

There's another local story here: for KAXE/NCI, The Great River, above the Falls (Twin Cities), after the19th & 20th centuries.

A number of riverfront colleges in the area can provide expertise.
-Gord Prickett, the golden gopher