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Impaired lake looking for friendship

Lake Pepin from the Minnesota side of the river. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 3
View of Lake Pepin from the Wisconsin side of the river. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
A look at Lake Pepin from the Minnesota side of the river. Sarah Hansen / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 3

 A decade ago, neighbors living in the beautiful riverfront community of Wacouta began to notice that their island was growing.

Sediment had collected on its shores and was increasing the footprint of the small island in the bay. Down river, sediment collected in the bed of Lake Pepin as well.

By 2009 these concerned residents were heavily involved in the sediment runoff issue — so much so that they organized to form the nonprofit Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance. Since then, the aim of LPLA has been to save this beloved and geographically unique body of water from further pollution.

LPLA was a volunteer-run organization for three years before board members hired a full-time staff member, Rylee Main, in 2012.

Main is a policy wizard and natural resource sustainability expert who currently serves on Minnesota's Clean Water Council. Starting this month, LPLA will double its staff and have two paid positions focusing on membership, grant writing and advocacy.

Main said that the ball is rolling to hopefully dig up and remove sediment and the accompanying phosphorus that has polluted Lake Pepin, but there's more work to be done around building support for this $10 million project. Only 65 percent of the cost will be covered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and LPLA is working to cover the remaining $3.5 million through fundraising, grants and municipal support.

Capturing people's interest in a subject as dry as dirt (literally) can be a challenge, especially on the Wisconsin side of the river.

"If they don't live on the lake, they're not experiencing this, so why fund a project that you're not familiar with?" Main sympathizes.

Bay City, with a population of 500, is currently the largest supporter of LPLA on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River basin. Residents there have experienced sediment pollution firsthand and witnessed shallow flows stopper their boat tourism as well. Getting other communities on board with LPLA's riverfront sustainability mission has required more work.

To help educate people about the devastating changes occurring on Lake Pepin, Main often takes city council members and others out onto the water.

"It looks really vast and you think it's probably deep," she said. "Even though it looks like a huge body of water in some places it also might be a foot deep."

The group reported that a record number of boats were grounded last summer and had to be towed ashore. But sediment has done more than sink and shallow the lake, the particles also float, creating water so cloudy that light cannot penetrate it to promote healthy aquatic vegetation. Because of this, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has declared Lake Pepin as an impaired body of water.

To aid the sediment removal project, LPLA hopes to raise half a million of its projected $3.5 million goal from municipalities throughout the Mississippi River basin whose sediment runoff is contributing to these issues.

Red Wing has already pledged $100,000, spread across two years, to support the Lake Pepin sediment removal project which will include sediment being dredged from the lake and removed to either a holding location or reused in a future Corps project. The city also stopped using sand to de-ice roads in winter, hoping this measure will prevent additional sediment runoff from reaching the lake.

Main said that many efforts like this, which decrease sediment deposits along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, are key for sustaining the lake's ecology and beauty. The effect of "Band-aid" efforts like the proposed sediment removal project are important, she said, but its impact is projected to last just 50 years.

"The big question is, how do you address sediment continuing to come into the lake? We need to create more of an advocacy group to create pressures to make changes upstream," Main said.

Outreach and membership efforts will ramp up in 2018 with the additional staffing at LPLA. Past membership activities have included a scavenger hunt, art projects and lake tours.

Gaining more individual supporters for Lake Pepin has been a top goal of Main's for awhile, but since her work began six years ago — operating within the equally slow-moving machines of politics and science — 2018 marks the first time LPLA could begin to see some major momentum forward to create a measurable impact on the lake. If, that is, their project goes forward. And if, of course, they can come up with the money. After that, a lot depends on members taking action.

"We really need to have a united voice among the community and have more members," Main said.

She continued, "We want people to fight to keep this protected. It's not about one project — it's about keeping the lake healthy for future generations."

Anyone can visit lakepepinlegacyalliance.org/membership to join LPLA and learn more.

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