Big River Magazine
Mississippi River stories and news
July-August 2008
News excerpts and Links

Follow the links for more information about news in Big River.

Celebrate the Riverway

Quad Cities — River Action, a local environmental organization, is planning a four-day summer conference and celebration to focus attention on the Quad Cities’ riverfront and river issues. 

“The Upper Mississippi River Conference: Weaving Multiple Uses into Sustainable River Communities” will consider natural habitats, environmental issues, recreational opportunities and economic development. It is primarily for people involved with planning, programming or river studies, and is cosponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Richard Louv, the author of the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, will speak about how to reconnect kids with nature, in an age when both kids and adults seem to spend more time in front of computer and television screens than outside. His Aug. 23 talk will be free and open to the public.

The simultaneous river celebration, “RiverWay 2008,” is designed for visitors and residents. Activities include a night bike ride along the riverfront, a kids’ fishing tournament, canoe and kayak lessons, cell-phone riverfront tours, a movie projected onto a screen of water, and a trail ride from Davenport to Muscatine and back, with an overnight stay in Muscatine.

Bridge Reviews

South St. Paul, Minn. — The state’s Department of Transportation (MnDOT) “must take greater care in choosing and reviewing bridge designs,” says Rep. Joe Atkins, the Inver Grove Heights Democrat who chairs the Minnesota House Commerce and Labor Committee. That panel investigated delays in construction of the Wakota Bridge over the Mississippi River southeast of St. Paul.

The Wakota Bridge carries I-494 across the Mississippi between South St. Paul and Newport, Minn. It is actually two bridges — one will carry eastbound traffic, the other westbound. MnDOT rebid construction of the Wakota Bridge after it found a design flaw. Originally scheduled for completion in 2007, the $60 million do-over now is expected to be complete in 2010.

Construction of the westbound span of the new Wakota Bridge began in 2002. A problem was found during construction in 2004 “when a higher than normal frequency of hairline cracks began appearing in the concrete bridge due to higher stresses than designed for in some parts of the bridge,” according to MnDOT. A retrofit added cables and anchor blocks to redistribute the stresses.

The westbound bridge opened in 2006 and now carries three traffic lanes each way. The scheduled completion of the redesigned eastbound bridge in 2010 will open five lanes in each direction.

Estimated cost of the entire Wakota project, including the eastbound river span, now is $300 million.

Following the design goof, MnDOT confirmed at a hearing of Atkins’ committee this spring that the department would supplement its peer-review process for bridge designs “in an effort to prevent this travesty from occurring again,” said Atkins.

What’s new about the agency’s procedure is required peer review for major bridges designed by outside consultants. The procedure now is “to have the design reviewed by a different, independent consulting firm as opposed to having the design checked by another engineer with the same firm that is designing the bridge,” said MnDOT spokesperson Mary McFarland Brooks.

MnDOT already requires checks of bridge designs by a second designer. “This practice is long standing and applies to both in-house plans and those completed by consultants,” said McFarland Brooks.

Review by an independent design firm “adds another layer of design review to reduce the potential for a design error in the contract plans,” she added.

Atkins says the I-494 bridge will improve travel and commerce in the Twin Cities’ southeastern suburbs. “The Mississippi is a working river, and with a main artery like the Wakota Bridge being clogged, this has had a dire impact on businesses,” he adds.

Aside from automotive traffic, for Atkins the new bridge is significant because of its bike lane. “Bicyclists finally have a way to cross and appreciate the Mississippi at a point between St. Paul and Hastings,” said Atkins, who calls himself an “avid cyclist.”

Herons Here & There

La Crosse, Wis. — The Pump House Regional Arts Center is sponsoring a public art exhibit this summer: 35 six-foot great blue heron sculptures, made of fiberglass with beaks and legs of steel. All of the birds are individually embellished and emblazoned by local artists. The herons stand on street corners and the waterfront all over Onalaska and La Crosse. They will be auctioned off in the fall, with proceeds going to the Pump House.

For information or a map of the herons, visit the Pump House website. You can vote for your favorite online from the site as well.

Winona, Minn. — Meanwhile, 30 miles upriver, in Winona, Minn., the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge closed a 57-acre backwater area to boats until July 7 to protect an active heron rookery. Trees in the Mertes Slough rookery support nests of more than 800 great blue herons and egrets, as well as uncounted cormorants. About 700 young birds fledged from the rookery in 2007.

Prolonged high water levels in May made the rookery a popular and accessible destination for canoeists and kayakers, whose visits threatened to disrupt the nesting birds. Even if water levels stay high enough to allow passage through the floodplain forest, young birds should have fledged by July 7.

Weighing the Pros & Cons

Cassville, Wis. — A proposed coal-fired electric generating facility at Cassville would not emit enough pollutants to violate national air quality standards, wastewater from the plant would have little impact on the Mississippi, but air quality would decline, and plant and animal life could suffer, according to a draft environmental impact statement on the project issued in May by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the staff of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Power and Light Company, a subsidiary of Alliant Energy, said it needs to build the new power plant either at Cassville, on the Mississippi, or near Portage, northeast of Madison. With costs estimated at $850 to $950 million, depending on where it is built, the new plant would help keep energy costs down, according to the company. Without a new plant, Wisconsin Power and Light would have to buy more power, which costs more than generating its own.

But a number of threatened and endangered mussel species near Cassville, including the Higgins’ eye pearly mussel, which is listed as a federally-endangered species, would be disturbed because of construction of a barge unloader and increased barge traffic at the site.

Likewise, trees used by bald eagles during the winter would be removed during construction. Whether enough trees would remain to support the eagles remains unknown, according to the report.

In addition, the construction of new railroad tracks to store coal cars, as well as increased train traffic, could affect the breeding of prothonotary warblers, a species of “special concern” to the state and a conservation priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Rare plant species and a rare snake species also could feel the impact of the tracks.

The public can read the draft environmental impact statement at the Public Service Commission’s website. The public comment period is set to close June 30. Once the commission staff issues a final report, it will hold public hearings near each of the proposed sites. In December, the three-member commission will decide whether to approve construction of a new facility either at Cassville or Portage. EIS Executive Summary (pdf)