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Losing Lake Pepin: Time for unity, action against sedimentation

Aerial photo comparison of sediment accumulation in Upper Lake Pepin. The circles indicate major fill areas and new or extended land formations. (Adapted from USGS) 1 / 4
Aerial photo with general sketch of the primary boat grounding area. There are no buoys or landmarks to safely direct boaters headed upstream from the open water to the navigational channel. The sketch is conceptual and may not be exact. (adapted from Google Maps, 2017)2 / 4
Boaters headed upstream have to find the navigational channel early, before any buoys or markers indicate shallow water in open water. The sketch is conceptual and may not be exact. (adapted from Google Maps, 2017)3 / 4
Aerial photo of the confluence between the Minnesota River and the Upper Mississippi River, just north of Lake Pepin. The brown water in the Minnesota River is responsible for 80-90% of the sediment accumulating in Upper Lake Pepin. (adapted from MPCA)4 / 4

As reported by Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, boat groundings in upper Lake Pepin reached an all-time high last summer. Some readers commented that the danger is most formidable for visiting and infrequent boaters.

While accurate, the rest of us are not immune from the underlying ailment facing Lake Pepin. Sedimentation is nearing ecological and social tipping points that will be disastrous for everybody. It's time for us to heed the warnings and mobilize together for action.

Let's start with boat groundings, a danger slowly becoming normalized.

Does anybody know of another lake or river where a common recreational activity is watching boaters hit shallow water going 40 mph only to ground themselves on an ever-growing sand bar? Let's not accept this as one of our great recreational inventions, like waterskiing, but instead see boat groundings for what they are: a cause for concern.

Also, we should care about visiting boaters because they fuel local tourism and business around Lake Pepin.

What happens when a family visits, grounds their boat, wastes their day getting free, and leaves with tens of thousands of dollars in damages? They won't come back. Neither will their friends and family.

Understanding the connection between the lake, tourism and the local economies is critical. We should appreciate our visitors and collaborate in advocating for a healthier lake.

Finally, boaters should not be blamed for grounding events. Sedimentation rates are 10 times higher than normal, the navigation channel is narrowing and the channel markers are rarely in place. It is like driving down a road without signs, or even worse, with signs misplaced to lead people in the wrong direction. It is a recipe for disaster. Even experienced local boaters can become grounding victims given this treacherous combination.

Most groundings occur in open water while boats are headed upstream into the upper Mississippi River channel. Boaters aren't recklessly ignoring buoys or lacking vigilance from naivety or intoxication. They are traversing unassuming open water that mirrors the rest of the lake, which is generally obstacle free. Boaters have to hit a narrow channel early, but there are no markers indicating how to thread the needle.

Instead of casting blame, let's stay focused on the main culprit, incoming sediment from the Minnesota River, which contributes 80-90 percent of the 1 million tons of sediment that accumulates every year in upper Lake Pepin. Sediment reduction is the only sustainable option to protect the lake and the communities that depend on it.

Restoration, however, is a critical component of the long-term strategy because upstream sources are not meeting reduction goals and upper Lake Pepin is approaching irreversible damage.

Upper Lake Pepin is already vulnerable to ecological collapse from suspended sediment, which makes the water cloudy or "turbid" and causes a cascade of impacts to vegetation, fish and wildlife when it exceeds a certain threshold. As you might guess, water quality measurements in Upper Lake Pepin exceed this ecological tipping point and boat surveys confirm little to no vegetation.

Next up on sediment food chain? Fish, wildlife and the social fabric woven through them all.

Lake Pepin's ecological and social systems are intricately tied together, but so easily taken for granted.

After publishing the boat grounding article, LPLA also posted a prophetic tale about the isolation of Bay City. The blog highlights Frank and Cathy Dosdall, two lifelong residents who have observed their hometown transition from a charming, lakefront destination to a quiet drive-by town with abandoned local businesses.

"This part of the lake hardly gets used because people can't get their boats through unless the water is high. So, your businesses can't make it," Frank Dosdall said in the blog post. "Bay City has become kind of second rate, but it hasn't always been like that. Only since we've been increasingly cut off."

The feasibility study being spearheaded by LPLA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in upper Lake Pepin is formally classified as a habitat restoration project, but stakeholders should also view it as an economic development venture. Restoration won't eliminate, but it will reduce our vulnerability to ecological collapse, record boat groundings, and isolated communities.

With the federal government funding the feasibility study and 65 percent of the actual restoration, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to safeguard our future. If we don't take action, the impacts will only worsen and proliferate downstream.

It's time to become a united front.

Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance is advocating and fundraising for restoration in Upper Lake Pepin. A feasibility study is underway to determine what actions are technically feasible and sustainable. The next public meeting for the project will occur in February, with the exact date and time still to be determined. Visit the LPLA website, www.lakepepinlegacyalliance.org, or connect on Facebook to learn more, stay updated and join the action.

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