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Boaters beware: Upper Lake Pepin boat groundings at all-time high

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Zach Paider, right, general manager at Bill's Bay Marina, and Rylee Main, executive director of Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, took to the water to explore popular boat groundings sites. Photo by MacKenzie Consoer2 / 2

This article is special to the Republican Eagle, courtesy of the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance

Sedimentation continues to fill upper Lake Pepin and wreak havoc for boaters as groundings reach an all-time high. While the exact number of grounded boats is unknown, the local tow boat companies and the Goodhue County Sheriff's Office attest that this year may have set a record number.

With sedimentation rates 10 times above normal, low water levels this year created dangerous conditions for boat navigation with little room for error. The problem gains concern just as planning commences to strategically dredge areas that have filled in at the upper end of the lake.

"The most sustainable action is reducing the amount of sediment coming into Lake Pepin each year, but that's a slow process. In the meantime, there are real social and environmental impacts that can be mitigated with federally available funds. By doing nothing, these impacts will get worse and may not be reversible in the future," said Rylee Main, executive director of Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, one of the two environmental organizations that spearheaded the project.

Maintaining accurate boat groundings data is difficult since most boaters eventually free themselves. Bruce Ause, a resident in Wacouta Bay and former executive director of the Environmental Learning Center, described watching boats routinely ground themselves.

"The Wisconsin side of the lake is probably 6 inches deep. So you get these boats going full throttle and soon they miss the channel and launch," Ause said. "We've actually seen them come up off the water, plop down and they're stuck. Sometimes they are stuck there for days. If you go on a busy weekend, you'll probably see it."

Depending on the severity of the grounding, boaters have few options: free themselves with friends and passerby assistance, wait for higher water levels, or pay for a tow boat. This summer left many boaters resorting to their last option, which has created busy schedules for area tow boat operations. Zach Paider is the general manager at Bill's Bay Marina, the only official U.S. tow boat locally available that accepts insurance. Paider said their team has rescued a dozen or more grounded boats this year. Downstream, Mark Lutjen from Lake City Marina has also received an above-average number of phone calls from grounded boaters. The most severe groundings, however, are all referred to Wayne Prokosch, owner of River City Welding, because of the unique equipment he has built. Prokosch has rescued over 100 boats in upper Lake Pepin since the early 1990s.

"This year is the most I've ever done," Prokosch said. "We've had two or three sunken boats and probably 15 or more boat groundings."

Moving targets

Part of the problem is that the channel markers are displaced or completely removed by barges maneuvering through the narrow corridor. The Army Corps of Engineers measures water depth to identify the channel and set buoy markers to help navigation, but they don't last more than a few weeks. Resetting the buoys doesn't provide much of a reprieve. The main channel simply doesn't seem to be big enough for both barges and channel markers.

"I don't blame most groundings on the boaters," Prokosch said. "It's low water because the whole upper end of the lake is filling in (with sediment) so bad and the channel has a steep bank. If you get off the edge just a little bit, you're grounded. Then, barges run away with the buoys. Without buoys, boaters don't know where the channel is and are basically running blind."

Grounding a boat isn't just embarrassing, it can also be dangerous and expensive.

Prokosch said he only experiences the worst scenarios, but has witnessed broken bones, severe bruising, punctured lungs, and dental injuries caused by impact. Financial injury is also likely, especially with the larger boats. After accounting for the tow and damages, a boat grounding can cost owners tens of thousands of dollars. One thing is certain, boaters are smart to have insurance if they plan on traveling through the area. The intense sedimentation in upper Lake Pepin may not be appreciated by all area residents yet, but regular water users certainly learned a lot over the last year. Prokosch said that he couldn't print enough business cards because even experienced boaters wanted his information just in case. Prokosch said other boaters told him that they simply plan to stay away from the dangers posed in upper Lake Pepin and boat elsewhere.

Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance and Audubon Minnesota are now collaborating with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Wisconsin Department of the Natural Resources and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on conceptual planning for a federally funded feasibility study aimed at increasing depth and improving habitat conditions in upper Lake Pepin. Construction would not begin until 2019, but the second public meeting is expected in February 2018.

Has it happened to you?

If you are a recreational user that has experienced the sedimentation in upper Lake Pepin first hand, consider sharing your story with Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance.

The organization is creating opportunities for local action, including a database of citizen stories, photos and videos related to the problem. Put your experience to use and email mackenzie.consoer@lakepepinlegacyalliance.com to add your story to the collection.

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