Army Corps plan calls for construction of islands and new shipping channel on a neglected stretch of river
ABOARD THE ANSON NORTHRUP — After piling on to this old-style, double-decker excursion boat at Rosemount on Wednesday morning, scores of citizens, politicians and government agency employees listened as officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers outlined an ambitious plan to revitalize the most degraded stretch of the Mississippi River in Minnesota.
While still in conceptual stages, the proposal will likely call for the construction of up to 10 islands in the lower portion of Pool 2, as well as the straightening of a shipping channel, some additional dredging of shallow areas, and wetlands restoration.
Corps officials say such measures would improve water quality and wildlife habitat in the pool, which extends about 33 miles from the Ford Dam in St. Paul to Lock and Dam No. 2 in Hastings. The plan targets the most damaged stretch of the pool, the turbid and silt-filled backwaters above the Hastings dam.
Thomas Novak, coordinator for Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement with the Corps, said the combined dredging and island-building project would likely cost between $8 million and $20 million. Under the Corps’ typical cost-sharing arrangement, he said, the state would likely have to kick in 35 percent of the bill for the habitat improvements.
State Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he is very intrigued by the idea. “This is really cool stuff. It positions Minnesota to be a real leader [in river rehabilitation],” said McNamara, chair of the House Environmental, Energy, Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.
McNamara said the state’s portion of the project would be an ideal candidate for funding through the Legacy Amendment, the 2008 voter-approved constitutional measure that reserves a percentage of sales taxes to the environment and culture.
McNamara — who is also one of four lawmakers on the 12-member Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, the entity that makes Legacy Amendment spending recommendations to the Legislature — said he doubted the price tag would be an impediment.
“We just spent about $10 million apiece on two different Lessard projects,” McNamara said, referring to recent deals involving land acquisition and conservation easements in northern Minnesota.
The problems in Pool 2 — and the causes — have been the subject of much research.
Experts calculate that the discharge from the Minnesota River, which enters Pool 2 upriver from downtown St. Paul, has increased between 50 and 75 percent in the past decade. Most believe that is a consequence of extensive drain tiling of farm fields in the Minnesota River watershed.
With mountains of silt now deposited in the Mississippi after every heavy rainfall, the Corps has struggled to maintain the 9-foot-deep navigational channel in the lower pool. In the past, that part of the river required dredging every three to five years. Now it’s an annual affair.
Greg Genz, a construction barge owner and vice president of the citizen’s group Friends of Pool 2, said state and federal investment in Pool 2 is long overdue. “It’s like Pool 2 is a stepchild,” Genz said.
The problem of sediment from the Minnesota River has gotten an increasing amount of attention, but most has focused on the harms to Lake Pepin, Genz noted. With its iconic vistas and tourist attractions, Pepin is far more familiar to most Minnesotans than lower Pool 2, much of which is inaccessible by car.
“Everyone talks about how fast Lake Pepin is filling in, but Pool 2 is filling in much faster,” Genz said. “Every backwater and channel has filled in. We’ve got all sorts of problems.”
For 26 years, the Army Corps has sought to mitigate such insults to river through its Upper Mississippi River Environmental Program. That program, which has improved an estimated 100,000 acres of river habitat on more than 50 projects along the river from points north of St. Louis.
So why hasn’t Pool 2 gotten a piece of that action? Novak explained that the Corps can only provide 100 percent funding for environmental projects when federal land is involved. Otherwise, he said, a local cost-sharing partner must be found — and, in the case of Pool 2 (where there is little federal land), that’s not happened.
Jeff Janvrin, the Mississippi River Habitat Specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, explained to the assembled river cruisers how strategically placed islands can benefit the river by limiting wave action. That, he said, allows sediments in the shallows to settle, which permits more light penetration and fosters the growth of beneficial weeds that fish, birds and other animals exploit.
The habitat plan will likely also call for the creation of some current-free, deep spots in the river’s backwaters. Some species of game fish, such as bass and crappies, rely on such areas for over-wintering. Because of the heavy sediment load, those areas have largely disappeared from Pool 2.
But while Janvrin said there are many tangible benefits to be gained from such a re-engineering of the river, he cautioned that the long-term solution to the problems of Pool 2 involves a more complex goal: a reduction in the amount of water and sediment coming from the Minnesota River.
Along with the hopeful discussion for physical restoration of Pool 2, the cruisers on the Anson Northrup got an earful on the much-fretted subject of the coming Asian carp invasion.
Richard Carlson, a New Ulm area sportsman and member of an ad hoc citizens Asian carp advisory committee, went to the trouble to procure four dead specimens of Asian carp from a fish processor in Illinois. Carlson transported the frozen fish in the trunk of his sedan and then carried them up the gangplank and aboard the Northrup, where they were laid out on the front deck for people to gawk at.
The carp, voracious filter feeders that threaten to disrupt the aquatic food chain, have established robust populations on the Mississippi River in Iowa and have been steadily moving upriver. A few adult specimens have been caught in Minnesota waters, though there is no evidence of a breeding population.
Tim Schlagenhaft of the Minnesota DNR said negotiations are continuing with the Army Corps on how to best prevent the further spread. The DNR hopes to construct an electric barrier at Lock and Dam No. 1 in St. Paul. However, the Corps has expressed safety concerns, which could force the DNR to resort to the less-preferred option of a bubble barrier, Schlagenhaft said.
Another possible solution: the closure of the Lock and Dam No. 1. That would keep carp from swimming up the Mississippi and its tributaries into to the prime fishing lakes of central and northern Minnesota, the nightmare scenario that DNR and others most fear. However, such closure requires an act of Congress and is sure to face opposition from commercial navigation interests.
Bills granting the Corps authority for an emergency closure have been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate but have yet to be heard. Al Juhnke, a former state representative and current aide to Sen. Al Franken, said there is still hope for the measure because “this isn’t really a partisan issue. Asian carp don’t stay in just a Democratic district, or just a Republican district.”