In challenging times, it can be helpful and fortifying to focus on good news. So, a recent announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may be especially welcome for friends and neighbors of Lake Pepin.

On April 10, Corps released the environmental assessment and tentatively selected plan for a major restoration project in the head of the lake. The plan includes multiple measures to restore valuable aquatic and terrestrial habitat including constructing four peninsulas in a backwater area near Bay City, Wis.; protecting shorelines in the area; and dredging two nearby mudflats to create overwintering fish habitat. Dredged access channels, necessary for construction, will also serve to reconnect the Bay City harbor and increase recreational opportunities in the area.

At this exciting moment, it seems valuable to review the historical context and how this project came together, especially the local leadership and hard work that made it possible.

A brief history and highlights

The Lake Pepin project will add to an impressive record of restoration work on the Upper Mississippi, beginning in 1986 with U.S. congressional establishment of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration or UMRR. Initially called the environmental management plan, the historic legislation was spurred by decades of rising concerns by scientists and environmentalists about the river’s deteriorating environmental conditions, which stemmed from the extensive river alterations done over 100-plus years to enable and expand commercial navigation. In creating the UMRR, Congress established that Upper Mississippi management should balance navigation and ecosystem protection, and sparked a new flow of funding to support federal and state agencies in restoring ecosystem functions and features that had been severely degraded or lost.

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From the beginning, creating or restoring islands has been a mainstay strategy; their ecological value is manifold. With healthy and diverse plant communities, islands (or peninsulas) offer critical terrestrial habitat for migrating birds, waterfowl, reptiles, and mammals. They create aquatic habitat by slowing water flow and allowing suspended sediment to settle out, diminishing the water’s cloudiness (or turbidity). Less turbidity equals more sunlight, which enables the growth of aquatic plants that are essential for fish and other species.

Depending on conditions and configuration, islands can function to capture some of the sediment that is moving with the current. Islands also disrupt the momentum of wind, limiting its potential to create waves that would wear down shores and stir up lake bottoms, further exacerbating turbidity.

Since 1986, the UMRR has funded 56 restoration projects — including 66 islands — and restored more than 100,000 acres of habitat. It has become nationally recognized as the most important mover of restoration and monitoring in the Upper Mississippi, and it has fueled the advancement of restoration science and the pioneered innovative engineering designs and techniques to restore habitat.

At the start, there were few examples of large-scale river restoration to inform initial projects. Nonetheless, some of the earliest ones remain exemplary success stories, namely, the Pool 8 restoration begun in 1987, which included eleven constructed islands, strategic dredging, and water management features. Implemented in three phases over 23 years, that project transformed an open, windswept, de-vegetated stretch of river near Stoddard, Wis., into an ecologically complex and thriving landscape with abundant plant and wildlife biodiversity.

According to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Mississippi River habitat specialist Jeff Janvrin, the techniques and features of that project “set the standards” for future island construction throughout the Upper Mississippi.

The Mississippi River Pool 8 restoration began in 1987 and included 11 constructed islands, strategic dredging, and water management features similar to those proposed near Bay City, Wis. Implemented in three phases over 23 years, that project transformed an open, windswept, de-vegetated stretch of river near Stoddard, Wis., into an ecologically complex and thriving landscape with abundant plant and wildlife biodiversity.  Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources slide
The Mississippi River Pool 8 restoration began in 1987 and included 11 constructed islands, strategic dredging, and water management features similar to those proposed near Bay City, Wis. Implemented in three phases over 23 years, that project transformed an open, windswept, de-vegetated stretch of river near Stoddard, Wis., into an ecologically complex and thriving landscape with abundant plant and wildlife biodiversity. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources slide

For example, the Pool 8 islands were intentionally built with differing elevations, widths, and configurations so as to create a range of habitats for the turtles, shorebirds, waterfowl and fish that were the project’s principal restoration targets. While the goals did not target human interests, Janvrin said the impact of restoring a healthy ecosystem at the site has resulted in pronounced social, recreational, and economic benefits.

WDNR Mississippi River water quality specialist Shawn Giblin concurred, stating “The benefit of these projects to local communities is huge. Look at Pool 8. That project is central to [Stoddard’s] economy. Go down there in winter and you’ll see hundreds of people out there on the ice fishing." Giblin adds that considering restoration projects are designed to last 50 years, most well beyond that, "it’s some of the best money spent as a society.”

Among the many other noteworthy UMRR-sponsored restoration projects are the Sunfish Lake and Mud Lake projects done in Pool 11 north of Dubuque Iowa, between 2002–2006. According to Janvrin, those projects serve as excellent models, and hopeful examples, for what’s possible in Lake Pepin. Those restorations occurred in a river stretch that is highly impacted by turbidity, similar to the Lake Pepin project conditions. They also included dredging backwaters to create beneficial deepwater overwintering habitat for fish, and constructing islands to slow the current and protect the area from prevailing winds.

Janvrin described Sunfish and Mud Lake restorations as “simple” projects, relative to other Mississippi restorations. Yet with limited measures, he said they’ve seen a major improvement in water quality and aquatic vegetation, and in turn “phenomenal waterfowl and fisheries responses.” Janvrin continued, “Pool 11 is probably the best [restoration] example we have in a high turbidity situation… I think that the changes we’ve been able to accomplish show what’s possible for Lake Pepin.”

Bringing the Lake Pepin project to fruition

For decades, many people have yearned to see Lake Pepin benefit from restoration via the dynamic UMRR program. But the dream has been thwarted largely because the area is not federally owned. So, unlike projects on federal lands, the Lake Pepin restoration requires a substantial local funding contribution, a non-federal sponsor to manage the area after construction, and the complex coordination of numerous project stakeholders — all formidable challenges.

This aerial shot shows the sediment flowing into Catherine's Cut at Bay City, Wis., harbor off of the Mississippi River. The photo was taken before 2020. Photo courtesy of the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance
This aerial shot shows the sediment flowing into Catherine's Cut at Bay City, Wis., harbor off of the Mississippi River. The photo was taken before 2020. Photo courtesy of the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance

Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance has instrumentally paved the way for restoration to proceed through its hard work to remove or mitigate obstacles. Its leadership and accomplishments showcase the irrefutable value in having a local voice for the river.

Among its many efforts, LPLA collaborated with Minnesota Audubon to draft a problem appraisal report, which is the necessary first step in the Corps' formal process to consider a river restoration project. The report provides an overview of deteriorating environmental conditions and opportunities to address them through island construction and other measures.

LPLA Executive Director Rylee Main and Tim Schlagenhaft, formerly of Audubon Minnesota, prepared the draft problem appraisal report by using information that WDNR had put together years prior when that agency was exploring the idea. By drafting this document for the Corps, LPLA and Audubon sped up the process and gave new life to the work that WDNR had already done.

Initially, LPLA and Audubon Minnesota worked to get Lake Pepin in line for a UMRR project. Realizing that pathway promised to be highly competitive and very expensive, they decided to submit a formal request to the Corps to explore the feasibility of a Lake Pepin restoration project through the “Section 204” program of the Water Resources Development Act of 1992, which was established to fund the Corps to implement projects that demonstrate “the beneficial uses of dredged material.” Going through Section 204 promised to move restoration forward more quickly, and lowered the local cost-share funding needed because the feasibility study and dredge material/transport would be 100% federally funded.

LPLA then went on to obtain letters of endorsement from local municipalities and elected officials. The diverse show of public support — along with LPLA commitment to do public outreach and project fundraising — encouraged WDNR to join the effort as the non-federal sponsor. They will manage the project area after construction, an essential role that LPLA doesn’t have the capacity or authority to fulfill.

Throughout the project planning stages, LPLA has continued to bridge the public and project partners and assist with ongoing funding obstacles. When the project cost looked to exceed the $10 million limit imposed by the Section 204 program, the WDNR and LPLA jointly applied for another source of federal funds: the “Section 1122” pilot program, which provides additional federal funds to Section 204 projects that are expected to have meaningful environmental, social, and or recreational benefits.

Lake Pepin was selected as one of 10 projects nationwide (out of nearly 100 applications) and the only one on the Mississippi River. This allowed the expansion of project features to include recreational benefits.

Federal funding through Section 204 and Section 1122 programs will cover much of the estimated $24.4 million project costs. But local cost share dollars are still required.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has thus far secured $275,000, while LPLA has raised nearly $1 million from a combination of fundraising and tapping local funding opportunities.

Local municipal pledges now amount to $117,500:

  • Red Wing, Minn. — $100,000
  • Bay City, Wis. —$10,000
  • Stockholm, Wis. — $2,500
  • Pepin County — $5,000

Minnesota has given a $750,000 grant from its Clean Water Legacy Funds/Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Project benefits, monitoring, and construction plan

The habitat restoration project is expected to be a substantial boon for the head of the lake. While it will not address the larger problem of excess sediment flowing into Lake Pepin from upstream, it will help to manage sediment, diminish its re-suspension, and change deposition patterns to improve water quality in and around the head of the lake. Moreover, the project will address a number of pressing, site-specific problems that have been documented for decades including the loss of aquatic vegetation that is critical to habitat diversity (including emergent, floating leaf, and submerged types of vegetation); the loss of island habitat and floodplain forest; the loss of deepwater overwintering habitat for certain fish species including largemouth bass, crappies, and bluegill; and the degradation of habitat necessary for migrating waterfowl.

The TSP includes actions to address each of these problems, as well as one-, rive-, and 10-year targets by which to evaluate the effects in each area. For example, it specifies that within five years of project completion at least 50% of the site will be classified as aquatic vegetation. Additional evaluation targets include that shorelines protected by new peninsulas will show no evidence of erosion at the five-year mark; at least 50% of planted seedlings on the peninsulas will be alive at 10 years out; and deepwater fish habitat areas of at least 4-foot depth will persist in the area for a decade.

LPLA’s big picture strategy

Although this project doesn’t address the chief problem of excess sediment inflow, according to LPLA’s Rylee Main that does not diminish the value of, nor the pressing need for it. “We’re still going to fight to reduce upstream sedimentation, but we recognize that’s a long-term challenge. In the meantime, we believe it’s crucial to invest in revitalizing the lake and help improve it for the benefit of wildlife and people today.” Main views habitat restoration as just “the first stage” in LPLA’s larger strategy to protect the lake. “This year, we will be working with communities to identify other projects or activities that can improve local conditions” she stated. For her, this restoration project is a clear win for the lake and its friends. She hopes it will stimulate and inform future restoration efforts at other sites within Lake Pepin.

The Lake Pepin Habitat Restoration proposal is open for public comment until May 11. Submit written comments to District Commander, St. Paul District, Corps of Engineers, ATTN: Regional Planning and Environment Division North, 180 Fifth St. E., Suite 700, St. Paul, MN 55101-1600. Public comments will be considered in the preparation of final project plans, which should be completed in 2020.

Please contact LPLA if you have questions about the habitat restoration project or the process for providing comments.

Sources:

Anfinson, J., 2003. The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.

Department of Defense, 2018. Announcement of the Selection of the Ten Pilot Projects Pursuant to Section 1122 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, Beneficial Use of Dredged Material. Federal Register 83(248): 67239-67240.

Main, R. & Schlagenhaft, T. 2014. Upper Pool 4 – Head of Lake Pepin, Mississippi River: Draft Problem Appraisal Report. Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance and Audubon Minnesota. static1.squarespace.com/static/571e699d37013b027acd61fa/t/5c425e75b8a045a927c7a9e8/1547853442389/Upper+Lake+Pepin+PAR+FINAL.pdf

Nissen, R. 2005. Miles of isles: restoring island habitat in the broad expanse of the Upper Mississippi River benefits fish, wildlife, and local communities. Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. Oct 2005.

Theiling, C., Janvrin, J., Hendrickson, J. 2015. Upper Mississippi River restoration: implementation, monitoring, and learning since 1986. Restoration Ecology 23(2): 157-166.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2016. Upper Mississippi River Restoration: Leading Innovating Partnering: 2016 Report to Congress. Rock Island, St. Paul, and St. Louis Districts. http://www.mvr.usace.army.mil/Missions/Environmental-Protection-and-Restoration/ Upper-Mississippi-River-Restoration/

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2020(a). Public Notice: Upper Lake Pepin habitat restoration. www.mvp.usace.army.mil/Home/PN/Article/2145455/public-notice-upper-lake-pepin-habitat-restoration/

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2020(b). Mississippi River Upper Pool 4 Section 1122 Pierce County Islands Head of Lake Pepin Backwater Complex Feasibility Report and Integrated Environmental Assessment www.mvp.usace.army.mil/Portals/57/docs/Environmental/EA/UpperLakePepin/UP4_20200409_UP4_MainReport.pdf?ver=2020-04-10-110747-873

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2020(c). Appendix J: Monitoring and Adaptive Management. Mississippi River Upper Pool 4 Pierce County Islands Head of Lake Pepin Backwater Complex Feasibility Report and Integrated Environmental Assessment