Saving the mighty Mississippi

By ANGIE HONG – Featured Columnist

Head west out of Hastings on Minnesota Highway 55, turn right onto Pine Bend Trail and continue for about two miles down a gravel road until you arrive.

“But where have I arrived?” you soon ask yourself. Is it the middle of nowhere, or someplace quite important? That, in a nutshell, is the question at hand.

Fifteen river miles from downtown St. Paul, the Mississippi River takes a sharp turn east as it rounds the southern tip of Washington County at Grey Cloud Island, which is technically part of Cottage Grove. A few miles later, the river passes through Lock and Dam No. 2 and under the Hastings Bridge, before uniting with the St. Croix River along the western border of Wisconsin at Prescott.

Before the dam was built, this stretch of river was little more than a narrow stream winding between channel lakes, wetlands and marshes with many shifting sandbars. The area contained excellent habitat for fish, turtles, waterfowl and wildlife, but even with constant dredging, it could not provide a reliable channel for navigation. After the dam was completed in 1931, only a few high points on the landscape remained above water, and over the years, most of those islands have slowly eroded away.

On June 13, Metro WaterShed Partners brought more than 150 local decision makers, elected officials, agency staff, and members of non-profit and citizen groups aboard the Anson Northrup Paddleboat to learn more about this seldom-seen stretch of the Mississippi River, known as Pool 2. The floating workshop was organized in cooperation with the Mississippi Makeover Project, a collaborative effort to restore habitat and improve water quality in the Mississippi River between Lake Pepin and St. Paul.

Gaining access to the Mississippi was the first challenge of the day. Although the river runs through several developed communities, there are few public access points and most of the riverfront land is owned by private industries. Along the Dakota County side of the river, Spring Lake Park Reserve and Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area afford views of the river, but no boat launches. On the Washington County side, a Grey Cloud Island Regional Park is still years in the future.

Furthermore, workshop organizers wanted to avoid passing through the Hastings Lock and Dam, as locks are the primary means through which invasive Asian carp travel upriver. In the end, CF Industries, a global producer and distributor of fertilizers, offered their dock at the north end of Spring Lake as a boarding point, allowing workshop participants access to an otherwise off-limits stretch of riverfront property.

Aboard the boat, it was easy for passengers to forget that they were floating through a bustling metropolitan area of 2.2 million people. Three other boats passed during a three-hour tour, including one small canoe and an enormous barge hauling freight down the river.

There were few landmarks visible from the water, save the white smokestacks of the Emerald City, otherwise known as Flint Hills Resources’ Refinery. In spite of its natural appearance, however, presenters from the National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of Natural Resources, cautioned that this stretch of the river was less healthy than it appeared.

Pool 2 is the first stop for massive quantities of sediment traveling downriver to Lake Pepin. Originating in the Minnesota River Basin, the sand and silt fills in backwater lakes and wetlands in Pool 2 and Spring Lake, causing constant headaches for barge captains and Army Corps staff, who can’t dredge often enough to keep the channel clear. The murky waters make life hard for native freshwater mussels, aquatic invertebrates, predator fish and diving birds.

And Asian carp are a growing threat. The fish, which can jump up to 10 feet out of the water, harming people and damaging boats, also out-compete native fish and alter food chains. DNA evidence suggests that small numbers of Asian carp are already in the Mississippi River south of the Ford Dam and in the St. Croix River south of Taylors Falls.

The Mississippi Makeover Project envisions a future where this stretch of the Mississippi River will become a healthy and protected ecosystem that attracts abundant wildlife, becomes a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, and provides economic benefits to local communities. Spring Lake, once a renowned duck hunting area, is still a local favorite for hunting and sports fishing. Strategies for restoring this area include building and restoring Islands in Pool 2 in addition to restoring isolated wetlands, deepwater fisheries and other habitats. In addition, basin-wide efforts to keep sediment and polluted runoff out of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers will improve water clarity in both Pool 2 and Lake Pepin.

If the number of local, state and federal representatives that turned out for the WaterShed Partners Mississippi Makeover Tour is an indication, people care deeply about the Mississippi River and are interested in protecting the whole river, from the Headwaters in Itasca to Lake Pepin to the Gulf of Mexico, and the remote backwaters in between.

“Where have I arrived?” you asked yourself.

“You are here at the Mighty Mississippi,” the river replied.

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water – www.mnwcd.org/cleanwater – which includes Brown’s Creek, Carnelian Marine – St. Croix, Comfort Lake – Forest Lake, Middle St. Croix, Ramsey Washington-Metro, Rice Creek, South Washington and Valley Branch Watersheds, Cottage Grove, Dellwood, Forest Lake, Lake Elmo, Stillwater, West Lakeland and Willernie, Washington County and the Washington Conservation District. Contact her at 651-275-1136 ext. 35 or angie.hong@mnwcd.org.

For more information:

Mississippi Makeover: www.dakotacountyswcd.org/wshd_missmak.html

WaterShed Partners: www.hamline.edu/cgee/watershed

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