John Anfinson’s Vision for the River

John Anfinson’s role as superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area gives him a close look at the Mississippi River every day, specifically the 72-mile national park which runs through Minneapolis and the surrounding region. With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studying all three locks and dams in the Twin Cities, and a decision coming on federal interest in them, there is a conversation needed. Anfinson wants to make sure that we have that conversation.

When people think of America’s greatest and best places, they think of national parks. And in these 72 miles of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, we have a confluence of icons: the Mississippi River and the National Park Service. The Mississippi is one of the world’s renowned rivers. The National Park Service, meanwhile, is a model copied worldwide. It is an iconic idea in and of itself.

Here, we bring the two together — we bring the iconic Mississippi and the iconic National Park Service in one place, and yet we don’t treat either as what it is.

My vision is that we will treat the Mississippi River as one of the world’s greatest rivers. People will build along it, they will develop along it, they will look at water quality, in a way that matches this confluence of icons. We will treat it the way we want a national park treated. If we do that, everything else will take care of itself.

Minnesota state Rep. Diane Loeffler said it best at a Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board meeting. She talked about development of the upper river above the falls, responding to an idea for development, saying ‘this is a national park on one of the world’s greatest rivers. What you’re proposing is not worthy of that.’

Whatever we do, buildings, parks, developments, we need to make them worthy of the Great River.

Someday we won’t have to be reminded of that. We’ll just know it.

My background in environmental history has helped me see the evolution of our relationship to the Mississippi River over time. We are at a point that we’ve rarely had the opportunity to be at, to consider a new vision for the river, a 21st century vision. Every project on this river, every lock and dam, every levee, every refuge, everything we’ve done for the river has been because a group of people have a vision, and they fought for it and made it happen.

Spring 2017: Tom Meyer
Summer 2017: John Anfinson

If our vision for this river in the 21st century is different than the current one, then we need to actively and intentionally go after it.

We are at a point where we are looking at the Mississippi from its confluence with the Minnesota River to St. Anthony Falls, the reach commonly referred to as the gorge. Now that commercial towboat navigation has ended, do we want the river in the gorge to be a lake, like Lake Harriet, or do we want to consider restoring it to a natural condition?

We could have motorized traffic with tour boats, fishing boats and steamboats going in and out of the gorge through Lock & Dam 1. Some might want it to  be a lake just for rowing and paddling. Or we could take the locks out and have it be like a whitewater rapids, or at times a small stream, depending on the water levels.

The Park Service hasn’t taken a position on an outcome. We want there to be a conversation, so that we all come together. Some will be happy and some won’t, but at the end, we as a society will have made a decision as to what we wanted to do with the Mississippi River in the heart of the Twin Cities.

I think we have the responsibility to have that conversation.

Those who envision restoring the natural flow regime to the gorge, imagine that at high water, like we’ve had this year, it would draw whitewater kayakers from around the region, maybe the nation, to kayak through the Twin Cities. At low water, the Mississippi might be only 12 to 18 inches deep. People  could float down it in an inner tube. You’d have tens of thousands of people using the river.

I was reading a study that the Coon Rapids Dam commissioned and in the pool above the dam, there are seven or eight species of fish. In the rapids above Champlin, there are more than 35 species of fish. If we restore the gorge, the ecological diversity will come back, the fish diversity would come back. We would have those game fish back in the gorge. We could do fly fishing in the gorge. Imagine that! Think of how you could sell Minneapolis-St. Paul to other parts of the country.

We have to get all of these options out there and then make a hard decision as a society, but I’m excited for that. This is an exciting time to be part of the river’s history.

When the Asian carp issue became prominent, people said, ‘You can’t close St. Anthony; it would take an act of Congress.’ As a historian, I’ve looked at acts of Congress that have changed the river. It usually takes much longer – decades, sometimes – to get what you want. But this just took a couple years.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked if we would take over visitor management at the lock, we signed a five-year agreement and I figured we’d see where things go. All of a sudden, within a year we’re in a conversation about turning it into a world-class visitor center. There’s someone who’s come forth working actively to make it happen, and the National Park Service could be the main visitor presence. And that was not on my radar at all.

And then American Rivers comes in within a year after its closure and talks about taking out the dam and restoring the gorge. And the corps, we thought they would do their study in a couple of years, but instead it’s underway, right now, with a deadline of mid-August.

That is a pace that is unreal, in historical terms.

At the end of the process, however, all I want is that we have the conversation that we haven’t had really since the cities were founded: What do we want from the Minneapolis riverfront?

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