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Mississippi River stories and news

March-April 2012

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River News
From March-April 2012 Big River

Saving Lake Pepin

The big lake on the Upper Mississippi is plagued by sediment and pollution. Researchers warn that in a century its upper reaches may silt up. Meanwhile, pollution impairs its waters and harms fishing.

So who should do what? Federal, state and local officials as well as other citizens have been working on it under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The Draft Minnesota River TMDL report (pdf, 248 pages) and Draft South Metro Mississippi River TMDL (pdf, 136 pages) were released on Feb. 27 by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA). The latter report addresses total suspended solids in the Mississippi, from its confluence with the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling to upper Lake Pepin at Red Wing. The PCA will accept public comments on these for 60 days.

MPCA information and link pages:

TMDL Project: Minnesota River - Turbidity

South Metro Mississippi TMDL Turbitity Impairment

The public notice for the draft Minnesota River Turbidity TMDL is posted on the MPCA Public Notice webpage. Also on public notice is the draft South Metro Mississippi River TMDL, which addresses total suspended solids in the Mississippi, from its confluence with the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling to upper Lake Pepin at Red Wing.

More information on the state's impaired waters list and TMDL studies is available on the MPCA’s Impaired Waters and TMDLs webpage or toll-free at 800-657-3864.

If comments convince the PCA to change the proposed guidelines, it will re-post the document for further comment.

Once the PCA is satisfied, it will submit the document to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which administers the Clean Water Act. The EPA will then decide whether to approve them as regulations. Regulations would be enforced starting a year later.

So far, local-government officials haven’t liked what they have seen in the proposal. They complain that local authorities may have to take cleanup steps without state or federal funding. This would require upgrading wastewater-treatment plants, building rain gardens and installing porous pavement so precipitation sinks into the ground rather than running into storm sewers, streams and rivers.

Cost estimates range up to $873 million. With more than 200 local governments affected, the average cost would be about $4 million per town. Smaller communities would pay less, but larger municipalities, such as St. Paul with 26 miles of riverfront on both banks, would likely pay far more. Meanwhile, local governments are already hard-pressed to balance budgets, and raising taxes is as difficult as ever.

Local governments point out that point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, account for scarcely 1 percent of the problems with Lake Pepin. The bulk of the runoff comes from nonpoint sources, especially from cropland.

The cost to local governments represents “a staggering amount of money to achieve a minuscule load reduction relative to the total load reduction to the lake,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press (12-1-11) quoted a Minnesota Cities Stormwater Coalition representative as saying.

Yet farmers up and down the ­Minnesota River don’t want to take all the responsibility for cleaning up Pepin, and gaining their political support for such an effort is difficult, if not impossible.

Some farmers along the much-maligned Minnesota have already altered tilling practices, putting in terraces and planting buffer strips to limit erosion and runoff that reaches the Minnesota and ultimately the Mississippi. Even so, other fields remain thoroughly tiled, which speeds runoff of soil and pollutants.

Researchers have found that two-thirds of the runoff harming Lake Pepin is from bluffs and riverbanks, not cropland. However, erosion from bluffs and riverbanks increases when water rapidly runs off tiled and ditched fields. Another reason for faster silting may be the predominance of soybeans in the Minnesota River watershed. Soybeans absorb less moisture than hay and other vegetation that soybeans replaced beginning in about 1940 — sending more water into streams.

Lake Pepin was formed by the river backing up behind a natural dam of sand from Wisconsin’s Chippewa River. Lake Pepin stretches more than 20 miles and is more than a mile and a half wide in places, with a mean depth of 18 feet. The lake remains popular with boaters, anglers and other river lovers.

A lot of people have been waiting to see the proposed guidelines. “Rightly so, and I am too,” said Robert Finley, a Minnesota PCA watershed manager based in Mankato, Minn., a city at the big bend of the Minnesota River. “It will give us direction and targets to shoot for. I know a lot of people are anxious to get down to business.”

Among them, evidently, is U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa. Under an initiative announced in January by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Minnesota may become a test site for a program designed to limit farm pollution by encouraging farmers to conserve soil and curb runoff.

Participating farmers would agree to land-management practices that slow erosion and limit runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and manure. In exchange, farmers would get financial and technical support and exemption from new environmental requirements for up to 10 years. Funding would come under the 2012 farm bill.


Summer of Paddling

It’s useless to resist. A pack of agencies and groups is determined to get you out paddling on the Mississippi River this summer, otherwise known as the “Summer of Paddling 2012.”

Folks at the national wildlife refuges, national parks, Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas and state parks will be organizing and publicizing paddling events all summer. Watch their websites for updates. Facebook


Cranes to be Counted

Baraboo, Wis. — Dig out your thermos, binoculars and rubber boots — the annual Midwest Crane Count is scheduled for Saturday, April 14. It’s one of the biggest and most successful volunteer-based bird surveys in the world. Since the early 1980s, the one-morning-per-spring count has expanded to over 100 counties in portions of six states.

To join the count, check the International Crane Foundation website.

New River Charts

The new 2011 Upper Mississippi River Navigation Charts are now available for purchase, showing channels, sloughs, hazardous areas, bridges and more from Minneapolis to Cairo, Ill. Pick them up for $30 at the Mississippi River Visitor Center on Arsenal Island in Rock Island, Ill., download them for free from the internet or order by phone with a credit card.

The Big Boats Return

• Two big sternwheelers are scheduled to cruise the Mississippi River this summer, the first time since 2008. The American Queen, the largest steamboat ever built, has been reincarnated under new owners, the Great American Steamboat Company, which includes many people from the old Delta Queen Steamboat Co. It is offering overnight trips on the Lower Mississippi and Ohio rivers starting in April. On the Upper Mississippi we’ll have to wait until September to see the big Victorian fancy-pants gracing our stretch of the river again

On eight fall-color cruises between St. Louis and St. Paul through early November, the American Queen will stop at Davenport, Iowa; Dubuque, Iowa; La Crosse, Wis.; and Red Wing, Minn. A three-night round trip between St. Paul and Lake Pepin and two rail-cruise tours are also planned for fall.

HURRY You could win a free cruise on the American Queen if you enter the online drawing by March 15River Cruise Giveaway   Official Rules

• Meanwhile, American Cruise Lines will show off its new Queen of the Mississippi in August and come upriver in September. The 150-passenger (non-steam) hydraulically driven sternwheeler will leave St. Louis on September 1 and arrive at St. Paul September 8, then return to St Louis.

Seven diesel engines will propel the ship 50 percent faster than the American Queen. QOM’s top speed will be about 13 miles per hour vs. about 8 mph for the AQ. (Cruise Critic, 12-6-11)

To read more Mississippi River news and stories, order this issue or find Big River at one of these retail outlets.

Go to Previous River News (January-February 2012)