Big River Magazine
Mississippi River stories and news

November-December 2015

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From November-December 2015 Big River

River Stories & Sounds

California artist Wes Modes spent the summer of 2015 traveling the Mississippi River’s Driftless Area on a shantyboat, visiting river towns and collecting river stories and photographs as part of a multi-year art and history project dubbed “A Secret History of American River People.”

Modes, who recently finished MFA studies in digital and new media at the University of California in Santa Cruz, was inspired by Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat: A River Way of Life, a book that chronicled the author’s five years on board a shantyboat in the 1940s. Modes built his own shantyboat in 2012 using a chicken coop and a small barge. He began collecting and recording Mississippi River stories during the summer of 2014.

Modes hopes to chronicle stories from several American rivers and combine them into an exhibition that will include portraits and video biographies of people he interviews, in addition to an interactive web documentary and a research archive of the collected stories. Details of Modes’ journey and project are on his website.

Twin Cities media artists Monica Haller and Sebastian Muellauer joined Modes at Guttenberg, Iowa, and traveled downriver to Dubuque while conducting their own river research — mapping the sounds of the Mississippi from the headwaters to the delta. They plan to bring the archive of sounds back to the Twin Cities to exhibit in a “listening station” on the banks of the river.

Haller is listening to and recording underwater river sounds using a floating drone, called ORB. Muellauer built the drone out of a large inner tube — the center is the electronic hub of the robot buoy, which suspends under- and above-water audio recording devices, a camera and water sensors to record and transmit river sounds for archival purposes. Access to these sounds will be available as a “listening station” located long-term at an institution along the Mississippi, or short term at several places along the river. Museums and organizations interested in participating are invited to contact Haller.

“Beneath the Ground,” Haller’s recent exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, featured core samples of soil from Minnesota, northern Iowa and as far south as New Orleans. Follow Haller’s current river research on her facebook page, “Listening to the Mississippi.” (Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 7-24-15; Guttenberg Press, 8-5-15)


Historic Photos Online

Des Moines — You can now see five decades of Iowa aerial photos at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website, thanks to the Iowa Historic Digital Aerial Photo Project, funded in part by grants from the state’s Resource Enhancement and Protection program (REAP).

In 2009 and 2011, Historical Resource Development Program grants from REAP helped the DNR’s Geographic Information System Section obtain photos from archives across Iowa and the nation. For more than eight years, from 2004 to 2012, the photos were scanned and matched to their actual locations, to produce images of the entire state.

Visitors to the DNR website can view Iowa landscapes from the 1930s through the 1970s to see how development and urbanization has changed the state. Soil and stream bank erosion patterns, conservation improvements and changes in vegetation and habitat can also be used to compare “trends in land use and natural resource management,” according to the DNR, “which are important to developers, landowners and managers, and planners who need to understand how a property was previously used in order to evaluate history’s environmental and character impacts.”

Changes in the Mississippi River and its shoreline development are reflected in the photos. Check out the 1930s photos to view locks and dams in various states of completion.

To see them, zoom in to the part of the state you are interested in. Use the “Basemaps” tab at the top of the page to access a pull-down menu. Click between the different maps in the pull down menu to make decade-to-decade comparisons of Iowa’s landscape.


Flush Back Lock

Joliet, Ill. — A new type of lock has been proposed to control the spread of invasive Asian carp and other unwanted species from the Mississippi River basin into the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) suggests that a “flushing lock” could be constructed on the Illinois River at the Brandon Road lock near Joliet. The lock, located downstream of the confluence of the Des Plaines River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, would push water from the lock back in the direction it came from, thus flushing back fish that might have gotten into the lock chamber.

In May 2015, the Corps released a scoping document for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). It anticipates releasing the draft EIS in late 2016. The scoping summary can be found online.

Construction costs for the new lock are estimated at more than $1 billion, which is considerably less than the $18 billion estimate for separating the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes watersheds. (Our Mississippi, Summer 2015)


Park Expands

Dubuque, Iowa – In early August, the city of Dubuque, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and Friends of the Mines of Spain celebrated completion of the 52-acre E.B. Lyons Interpretive Area Addition adjacent to the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, a sprawling park south of Dubuque along the Mississippi River.

The project included construction of an accessible trail from the current E.B. Lyons Center to a new trail along a tall-grass prairie and overlook, the State Tree Woodland Walk, two new parking lots, a shelter, restrooms, a new DNR maintenance facility, kiosks and interpretive signs. Scenic views, including an area on the park’s north side designated as the Catfish Creek State Preserve, were improved, native vegetation near the center was restored and runoff was reduced, improving the water quality in Catfish and Granger creeks.

More than 250,000 visitors explore the Mines of Spain each year. The park boasts several official designations: It is a state Watchable Wildlife Area and an Important Bird Area — more than 213 species have been identified there. The Mines of Spain is part of the National Recreation Trails System and a National Historic Landmark, with 252 known archaeological sites.

According to city officials, the new acquisition will “buffer the park and interpretive center from development and protect and enhance the park’s historical, archeological, cultural and natural resources.” (Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation website)


From July-August News:

Classroom on the River

Minneapolis — In September, Augsburg College will send 20 students, faculty and staff downriver from Lake Itasca headed to the Gulf of Mexico in four voyageur canoes. The group will study environmental, biological and political subjects, and delve into individual research projects along the way. Students will also attend town hall meetings and meet with environmental organizations.
For more information check the college website. (Augsburg, 5-17-15)

Old Lead in the Water

Dubuque, Iowa — A University of Dubuque student’s research confirms that Dubuque’s waterways continue to be affected by historic lead mining.

“The effects of mining are still existing, and they will forever be existing,” according to Kyle Leytem, a senior environmental science major who spent the summer of 2014 exploring Dubuque-area waterways measuring lead content. His research showed higher levels of lead in the Mississippi between Dubuque and Bellevue, Iowa, than in other sections of the river.

Lead mining in Dubuque began on a small scale with the Native Americans and was a major source of income for settlers in the early and mid 1800s. At one time, an estimated 80 percent of Dubuque’s population mined lead. Early lead miner and historian Lucius H. Langworthy reported that between 40 and 60 million pounds of lead from Dubuque area mines were exported annually from 1833 to 1856.

Over time, lead mining and the after effects of abandoned mines caused dangerous metals to leach into nearby waterways. Leytem’s study of lead concentrations in Mississippi River pools 11 and 12, upriver and downriver from Lock and Dam 11, found higher lead concentrations in pool 12. Concentrations were especially high throughout and at the mouth of Catfish Creek, which feeds into the Mississippi south of Dubuque in the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, an area noted for lead mining.

For more information, watch Leytem discuss his findings on a YouTube video “Concentration of Sedimentation: Effects of Mining within Streams.” (Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 4-29-15)

Going the Length

Itasca, Minn. — Navy combat veteran Chris Ring stepped into the headwaters of the Mississippi River on June 6, with plans to swim its length. He began his 2,552-mile swim on the 71st anniversary of D-Day and expects to finish at the Gulf of Mexico on Veterans’ Day, November 11. Ring’s swim is part of a project called “Legacy Challenge: Swim for Their Sacrifice,” to bring together and honor the sacrifice of people who have lost family members to war. For more information visit the Legacies website.

Swimming the length of the river is uncommon — many more people paddle a canoe or kayak — but Ring is not the first to do it. Professional marathon swimmer Martin Strel completed the swim in 2002 and performance artist Billy Curmano, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, swam it for two months every summer for ten years to spotlight ecological damage to the river. (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 6-8-15)

Meanwhile, 80-year-old Dale Sanders of Bartlett, Tenn., started on his own Headwaters-to-Gulf paddling trip on June 4. He’s paddling with a purpose — to bring awareness to and raise money for juvenile diabetes. Sanders’ grandniece has the disease. Two cameramen and a 70-year-old friend are accompanying him.

Sanders said he was a competitive spear fisherman back in the 1960s and hasn’t done anything significant since. He aims to paddle the river in 80 days and capture the record for oldest person to paddle the whole river. (Fargo Valley News, 5-21-15)

New River Trail

Hastings, Minn. — A new section of recreational trail in Spring Lake Park Preserve is under construction. The 4.3-mile, $8.9-million Spring Lake Regional Trail from eastern Rosemount through Nininger Township will include two bridges over ravines, scenic overlooks and prairie restorations. It will connect with the popular Schaar’s Bluff gathering center. The new section, which is scheduled to be finished in the fall of 2016, is part of the Mississippi River Regional Trail linking St. Paul to Hastings, mostly along the river. Spring Lake is a Mississippi River backwater lake upstream of Lock and Dam 2 and Hastings.

“There’s a lot happening along the Mississippi River,” said John Mertens, senior planner with Dakota County. “We just finished the Swing Bridge trailhead and are just beginning the trail from Harriet Island to South St. Paul. By 2018 the whole trail from Harriet Island, in St. Paul, to Hastings will be complete. Meanwhile the city of Prescott [Wis.] will build a trail linking to Hastings.”
For more information and a map, see the Dakota County website.


River News from May-June 2015

Faulty Wheel Derails Train

Galena, Ill. — A fiery oil-train derailment near the Mississippi River on March 5 was caused by a faulty wheel, according to Matt Rose, the CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
The derailment took place about three and a half miles outside of the historic city of Galena. En route to Chicago, 21 train cars derailed and five caught fire. About 230,000 gallons of crude oil were removed from the damaged cars; 19,000 gallons of an oil-water mix were recovered and recycled; and about 8,000 gallons of water and other liquids used for firefighting and decontamination were recovered.
The Galena derailment was the latest in a series of national disasters involving the supposedly safer model of tank, called the CPC-1232, which the rail industry adopted in 2011.
Residents said they were surprised at how fast the 120 responders arrived on the scene. (La Crosse Tribune, 3-9-15; KWQC, 3-7-15; Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 3-9-15 & 3-20-15)

Prepare to Evacuate

Canadian Pacific (CP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroads are making major investments to upgrade their tracks and connections in the Upper Mississippi River valley, in anticipation of a continued oil boom.
According to documents filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, BNSF has 12 rail expansion projects planned between St. Paul and the Illinois border, including four miles of new track in La Crosse, Wis. CP has four major projects this year, including an upgrade of its switch yard in La Crescent, Minn., a bridge replacement and new sidings to allow trains to pass on the line that runs south out of La Crescent through Iowa and west to Kansas City. CP anticipates its crude oil shipments will nearly double in 2015.
Meanwhile, people in ­Minneapolis and the northwest suburbs are worried about plans to build a ­connector that would double train traffic through densely populated areas that include Theodore Wirth Park, Bassett Creek and the Target Center downtown. In fact, the Hennepin County Board voted with record speed to approve the county’s purchase of some land the railroads wanted to buy to make the connection.
The Minnesota Emergency Management and Homeland Security director has advised all people who live near tracks used by oil trains to be prepared, be aware and have plans in place to evacuate the area. (Camden Community News, April 2015)

Subsidized Carp

Paducah, Ky. — Commercial fishermen in Kentucky will be paid at least 15 cents a pound for Asian carp, thanks to a new subsidy from the state. Until now, some fish processors have paid just eight to 10 cents, not enough for fishermen to break even. The state will give tax incentives to at least three fisheries to process and market the carp to worldwide consumers.
The state announced the subsidy as a way to reduce numbers of the fish in the Ohio River. They have pushed past Louisville and are crowding out native fish, such as bass, bluegill and crappie. The state also acknowledges a growing market for the fish, especially in Asia.
Owners of Fin Gourmet, a Paducah manufacturer of Asian carp food products, plan to invest $1.3 million to open another facility and hire people for 66 new jobs in TriCity, Ky. The state has promised $1 million in tax incentives. (Courier-Journal, 3-16-15; Bowling Green Daily News, 3-18-15)


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