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Alliance asks cities to help Lake Pepin

ELLSWORTH — The Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance is looking to Wisconsin and Minnesota municipalities for help to restore Lake Pepin habitat for fish and wildlife, as the Pierce County Board learned at its July 29 meeting.

The LPLA is described on its website as “a multi-state non-profit organization established in 2009 to preserve and restore Lake Pepin as an integral part of the Upper Mississippi River System.” The alliance is based in Red Wing.

Rylee Main, project manager of the LPLA, addressed the board to explain its mission, funding hopes and the early concept plans to eradicate a growing problem: sediment buildup in Lake Pepin, especially at the head of the 20-mile long lake and Upper Pool 4.

“The lake at its current rate would be filled in in 300 years,” Main said. “The head of the lake by the end of this century. One million metric tons (equal to one cubic city block) of sediment is going into Lake Pepin each year.”

Main admitted while the majority of sediment (80 to 90 percent she said) is coming from the Minnesota River Basin, the alliance is trying to identify funding sources and garner community support for the project, which is estimated to cost between $8 million to 10 million. Wisconsin municipalities are being asked to consider passing resolutions in support of the LPLA mission; most of the waters affected by this problem are technically Wisconsin waters.

According to a handout from Main, “excessive sediment is degrading habitat in Upper Pool 4 and filling Lake Pepin at an unprecedented rate, resulting in a loss of aquatic vegetation, deep water fish habitat and poor water quality.”

Solutions outlined by the LPLA include: reducing sediment by implementing conservation practices within the watershed; protecting existing shorelines and building new islands to direct flow, reduce erosion and create protected areas for migrating birds and fish; and dredging channels and bays to increase overwintering habitat for fish and provide access channels for improved navigation.

“This is just the early concept phase,” Main said. “Nothing is set in stone at this point.”

The islands, if constructed, would block wind that kicks up sediment, resuspending particles in the water and reducing water clarity, Main said. Building the islands from sediment dredged from the river would make pockets of deep water for fish winter habitat.

The long-term fix is addressing the sediment sources, especially in the Minnesota River Basin, Main said.

“If they’re 80 percent of the problem, they should pay 80 percent of the cost,” said Pierce County Board President Jeff Holst.

Main said LPLA hopes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will fund up to 65 percent of the project, but that is not guaranteed. Currently, LPLA members are looking for funding for the other 35 percent. She said the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has expressed interest in the project and, while LPLA is approaching municipalities along Lake Pepin and its watersheds to garner awareness, funding plans are currently nonexistent.

Supervisor Brian O’Connell, Ellsworth, questioned how building islands would affect floodplain conveyance (areas likely to have overland flow as part of a floodplain). Main said the islands constructed would be low-elevation islands that wouldn’t negatively impact that aspect.

Supervisor Ken Snow, Spring Valley, said reconstructing the islands would be replacing what was once there but has been washed away. He said the back channels of the Mississippi in some places are almost filled with sediment.

“There’s a lot of habitat that doesn’t exist anymore that was there 20 years ago,” Snow said. “The river might be back to what it once was.”

To learn more about LPLA and its mission, visit www.lakepepinlegacyalliance.org or find them on Facebook.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in Febraury 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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