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Army Corps, Wabasha sign dredged materials memorandum

After months of complaints from local residents, the City of Wabasha and the United States Army Corps of Engineers - USACE - have signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the placement of dredged materials from the Mississippi River.

The original plan developed by USACE would have had the dredged materials being placed on the Drysdale farm south of Wabasha.

"People were concerned about air pollution, sound pollution, traffic problems, and tearing up the roads," said Wabasha Mayor Rollin Hall. "It seemed like it was going to be a major disturbance."

"We received over 500 comments from the community," said Bob Edstrom, project manager of the Dredged Material Management Project - DMMP - with USACE. "In fact, we extended our deadline for comments four times. We saw a lot of engagement in the community."

The feedback was beneficial, according to Edstrom. "This was a huge source of help for us. We heard from local people and agencies. We even heard from several senators. We ended up with a better and more robust proposal."

Mayor Hall was also pleased with the interaction. " I want to say that the Army Corps of Engineers, especially Col. Caulkins, were extremely cooperative. They deserve a lot of credit for listening to what the community was saying."

In setting up a project like the DMMP, the Army Corps of Engineers has to meet federal guidelines for being the least cost yet being environmentally acceptable, according to Edstrom.

When they set up an initial plan, USACE hopes to set a baseline, said Edstrom. "Then we can compare other alternatives to properly weigh social costs as well as monetary costs."

One alternative plan discussed in the memorandum would be an agreement to work together to create other dumping sites or a transfer facility. While the Memorandum of Understanding is nonbinding, it gives everyone involved a sense of direction to move forward.

It's not a small problem. USACE dredges 400,000 cubic yards annually from the Mississippi River, but "the lion's share, or 270,000 cubic yards comes from Pool 4," said Edstrom.

The reason so much sand must be dredged from Pool 4 is the Chippewa River. "The Chippewa River is geologically a young river, cutting through the sand and prairies of Wisconsin," Edstrom said. "It is steeper and faster than the Mississippi. When it hits the Mississippi, there is a change in speed which causes the sediment to drop out. This is what created Lake Pepin."

Using the Mississippi River for trade is a multi-trillion dollar industry for the U.S., according to Edstrom. The River and Harbor Act of 1930 requires USACE to maintain a nine-foot deep channel open at all times for a shipping lane.

"We have to weigh that work against environmental stewardship," he added. "We dredge constantly. We have some ideas for final placement where there is not a lot of public concern."

One idea is to fill aggregate pits that have been mined out and abandoned. Edstrom said this would be an efficient solution, but he noted that USACE would want to make sure that there is at least 20 years of placement before committing to such a plan.

USACE, according to federal law, can hire help with the project as long as it is no more expensive that it would be for the Army Corps to do it themselves. "The Army Corps will be required to manage the project, but the city can sign on to help us. That would be a preferred alternative."

Edstrom is pleased with the progress being made and emphasized the importance of these decisions and the time needed to make them.

"We want to be careful in managing expectations on a timeline. It is more important to get it right than to tie ourselves to an unrealistic schedule. The takeaway here is that we can work together. We are optimistic . We want to stress that communication is critical. We are taking this seriously. We want to get it right. A lot is at stake."

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

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