Lake Pepin might be the world’s best kept secret, a natural treasure tucked away among expansive agricultural fields. Unlike its surroundings, the rich oasis is relatively protected from human development due to its steep bluffs and protected waterways. Upon entering one of the quaint community downtowns, you may feel like you’ve gone back to a simpler, kinder time. Yes, Lake Pepin is a special place to live and visit. Unfortunately, the lake and surrounding communities may turn out to be more of a mirage than an oasis if excess sediment and nutrient input continue.
Over the past summer, LPLA has been talking with local communities about a restoration project at the head of Lake Pepin. In the process, we’ve heard many insightful questions. Is this project related to the ACOE Dredge Management Plan? (Spoiler alert: No.) Why even bother with restoration when high sedimentation rates continue? How is LPLA involved? What can I do?
Well, with the feasibility study on the horizon, we thought it would be a good time to share some answers with our wider audience. I recently cornered LPLA Executive Director, Rylee Main, for an Q & A based on the questions you’ve been asking for months. Here is our conversation.
The old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child” is often adapted to describe other societal goals. In the context of Lake Pepin, one might say it takes many united villages to save the lake. Of course, leadership is a necessary ingredient to spark action. In Red Wing, Bruce Ause has been the linchpin to community networks that have supported both kids and the environment for decades.
With almost 5.5 inches of rain in two days, conditions on the saturated buffer changed drastically. Because of the significant amount of standing water and the rapidly rising creek, I drew two days’ worth of water samples for nitrogen testing. During and after this weather event I also tested for dissolved oxygen and oxidation-reduction potential, which can be used as indicators of denitrifying activity in the buffer.
On July 11, Mark, Dave, and I drew water samples from the six sampling wells on the saturated buffer. We took additional samples from ¼ mile upstream, just upstream of the farthest west sampling well, just downstream of the farthest east sampling well, and the first chamber of the control structure. We have sent these samples to be tested for nitrogen and nitrate so that we can compare levels of nitrogen/nitrate in the saturated buffer to levels in the stream and tile water as it leaves the field.
Over the past two weeks, Mark Dittrich, Senior Planner with the Department of Agriculture, Dave Legvold, conservation farmer, and I dug the first six wells on the buffer strip. Learn more about how the process is going and what needs to be considered as we move forward with this project.
Claire Hinther is a rising junior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. She is pursuing a double major in political science and environmental studies with a concentration in women’s and gender studies. She is currently two weeks into a summer of research and work with Dave Legvold, a corn and soybean farmer in Northfield. In 2016, Dave was recognized as a water hero by Governor Mark Dayton for his conservation-based farming practices, including no-till farming and adoption of buffer strips.Through her work this summer, Claire hopes to gain a greater understanding of the factors at play in the formation of environmental policy in agriculture. She is also excited to learn more generally about the lifestyle and practices involved with sustainable farming, and the ways in which conservation-based farming affects the environment.
Perhaps you already know Judy Krohn, one of our newest members. If you fell in love with Lake Pepin while enjoying her salads, breads and cuisine at the Harbor View in years past, it’s possible.Or you may have attended the Stockholm Art Fair, where she conversed with passersby at the Flyway Film Festival table, and later listened to her dulcet tones along with a chorus of female band members in “The Hot Flashes.” You may have spotted her afterwards laughing with her husband, Gib, while enjoying a meal with fellow volunteers and artists who helped lure hundreds to the small town for this juried show. Perhaps you shared a meal with her at Pepin’s free, monthly Community Café dinner, or with Lake Pepin’s local food group. Or maybe you met Judy as you joined your civic neighbors through petitions and public meetings to advocate with her for clean water and clean air. If so, you have been touched by her welcoming and inviting spirit, one she credits to those around her in a modest, sincere way.
As the towboats and barges make their way back up the Mississippi River, the 2017 season of commercial navigation begins. In addition to the usual navigational and dredging activities related to keeping the nine foot wide channel open, this season on Lake Pepin, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin studying closely how and if there's a beneficial use of the sand and sediment it has been dredging and storing - one that would actually help the habitat and water quality at the upper end of the lake. Possibilities under consideration include: dredging backwaters to increase the depths needed for overwintering fish; constructing islands and land extensions for increased vegetation and diversified habitat - under the water, and on the islands themselves.
LPLA obtained funding from the McKnight Foundation to support research designed to develop a methodology for identifying and prioritizing critically erosive ravine and bluff sites within the Blue Earth (BERB) and Le Sueur River Basins (LSRB). The research was conducted by graduate student Anna Tran, under the supervision of Professor Shannnon Fisher of Minnesota State University Mankato, former Director of the MSU Water Resources Center.
Leon Morrison is a member of LPLA and the 2014 Conservation Farmer of the Year recipient in Pierce County. Today, he takes great measures to see that his topsoil stays put and does not eventually end up in Lake Pepin through practicing No-Till farming.
“We need to keep the soil up here, on the hills,” he said. The topsoil has the most organic matter. When the organic matter in the top soil is lost, says Morrison, it exposes the soil with extremely poor infiltration which erodes easily. “You don’t need topsoil in Lake Pepin.”
“We gotta get more incentives for no-till farming,” he said.
Fifty citizens of the Lake Pepin area came to Stockholm, Wisconsin to learn more about Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, the current conditions of the lake and possible solutions at the WideSpot Performing Arts Center in September. Some of these Wisconsin residents have seen results from their advocacy efforts in earlier years which helped bring about tighter regulation on point source pollution (phosphorous) from wastewater treatment plants and infrastructure upstream in Minnesota. They have had a big, positive impact. However, the lake remains impaired because we have not been successful at addressing our non-point source of pollutants.
Resdents came to learn more from a Senior Scientist at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Shawn Schottler. Schottler evaluates land management strategies to inform agencies, legislators, non-profits and producer groups in Minnesota based on research on the impaired conditions of our waters.
Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance invited him to hear how things are looking for Lake Pepin.
"I only became a photographer because I am here,” said Meixner. As the artist describes daily life in the river’s ecosystem, one appreciates how it is teeming with fish, fauna and flora, all impacted by the shallow and turbid waters.
There's the species who spawn in the backwaters but need deeper water to overwinter - crappies, large-mouth bass and bluegills. There's the morning's visitors: a white-tailed deer, and a snapping turtle scoping out a spot in his sanctuary to lay her eggs - and the nearby call of two pileated woodpeckers.
“We’re going to lose it all, if we don’t address the sediment and erosion issues on this lake, ” said Meixner.
“Really, what we do as farmers is harvest the sun,” said Bruce Tiffany, who raises corn and soybeans near Redwood Falls in southwestern Minnesota.
The Mississippi River also “harvests the sun.” Unfortunately, excessive suspended sediment, mostly from the Minnesota River, keeps the river so cloudy that little sunlight reaches the river bed to stimulate growth of wild celery, sago pondweed, star grass and other desirable species of “submerged aquatic vegetation.”
So, at a vital, fundamental level, we residents of the Lake Pepin area share a common interest with Minnesota River basin farmers in optimizing the harvesting of the sun.
“I look back at what the Mississippi is to me, and it’s the giver of life. Everything is a circle — a circle of life. That river’s been around here for thousands of years, and people have been using it for thousands of years. And people will continue to use it for the next thousands of years. As long as we keep that circle, don’t try to sever all the spines that go to it, because the Mississippi is just one part of that web.”– Jim Jones, Jr., Bemidji, MN