Maris Gilbert loves water—and she always has. As a Florida native, she grew up with water in every direction. When she moved to Minnesota for art school and discovered Lake Pepin, she felt like she’d found a mini-ocean in the heart of the Midwest. She spent as much time at Lake Pepin as she could. The lake became a place she could relax, as well as a source of inspiration for her art.
But when Maris learned about the serious threats to Lake Pepin, everything changed. She felt it was unfair, even wrong, to stand by and do nothing while the lake that brought her so much joy and artistic inspiration was in peril. So, she decided to create art that would highlight threats to Lake Pepin and, hopefully, inspire others to take action.
Today she works as a therapist, environmental activist, and artist who is on a mission to inspire greater love for local waters.
Nitrates create water quality concerns for human and ecosystem health. High nitrate levels in drinking water are linked to diseases such as methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome, which reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin in the bloodstream. High nitrate in surface water contributes to eutrophication and the creation of large hypoxic zones. The lack of oxygen in these areas impacts the survival of both freshwater and marine species and leads to harmful algae blooms.
Last summer, I began researching nitrogen abatement from saturated buffers on David Legvold’s farm in Northfield, MN. Dave is widely recognized as an advocate for sustainable farming practices and water quality awareness. He has been no-till farming for over twenty years and partners with researchers on projects that analyze pollution mitigation.
Annual spring floods turn floodplain forests around Lake Pepin into a dreamscape. Right off busy Highway 61, you can plop a boat in the water and, with a few strokes of the paddle, escape into a spectacular soiree hosted by the natural world. The wind plays percussion on the trees, birds sing to attract mates, and camouflaged (thereby unidentifiable) creatures make quiet splashes into the water. The sun glistens like a disco ball and fallen trees decorate the space with wooded arches reflected in glasslike water. This ongoing eco-festival is Michael Anderson’s second home, main office, and personal sanctuary.
Michael is the purveyor of nature trips with Broken Paddle Guiding Company (BPG), an eco-tourism business he started in Wabasha, MN. Most BPG paddle trips weave through the forested flood plains just south of Lake Pepin where water is clear, vegetation is healthy, and wildlife is thriving. Periodically, however, BPG will lead trips through the backwaters of Upper Lake Pepin, which are beautiful, but less ecologically vibrant due to sediment accumulation and resuspension. The contrast between the two areas is striking, which is one reason Michael joined restoration efforts.
Lake Pepin summers are a memory-making machine with an assembly line of beautiful vistas, diverse recreation, abundant entertainment, and small-town charm. The emotional memories it forms span generations and unites communities. Nobody understands this better than Zach Paider, General Manager of Bill's Bay Marina, who has become a passionate advocate for restoring Lake Pepin. Over the last year, Zach has been promoting a vision of restoration that supports recreational boaters, local economies, and the natural environment. In doing so, he hopes Lake Pepin can continue to cultivate beautiful memories well into the future.
Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) has gone back to its roots with a focus on local restoration, community education, and grassroots organizing. The Minnesota River Basin might contribute 90% of the sediment filling Lake Pepin, but downstream stakeholders are the guardians of this natural treasure. LPLA is here to amplify the local voice and advocate for a healthier Lake Pepin for years to come. Over the last year, LPLA has continued to advocate for upstream mitigation and downstream restoration, two activities that need to occur simultaneously. Check out what our growing organization has achieved with your support this year!
Frank and Cathy Dosdall are your local memory keepers. They have troves of historical stories and memorabilia that illustrate the economic, social, and environmental changes Lake Pepin has experienced over the last century. Proudly hailing from Bay City, WI, they have witnessed their hometown transition from a popular Lake Pepin destination to a quiet village becoming increasingly isolated from Lake Pepin. It’s no coincidence that Bay City also happens to be the community most impacted by the devastating sedimentation in Upper Lake Pepin. Its history is prophetic for other communities around Lake Pepin and highlights why the Dosdalls are critical players in restoring Lake Pepin.
Wendy Dart is a fierce protector of her community. Always eager to get her feet wet, she conducts citizen stream monitoring, keeps bat specimens in her freezer, writes advocacy letters to politicians, and daydreams about local Earth Day celebrations. Against traditional Midwestern norms, she isn’t afraid to join political conversations she overhears in public and her curiosity drives her to ask questions in almost equal step to her statements. She talks fast, but thinks even faster. Those that care about Lake Pepin and its communities should celebrate her presence. She’s got your back, meaning she works relentlessly, without pay, to investigate and improve public health, including water resources.
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.
Lake Pepin is distinct from its surroundings, but not isolated from them. Water quality is intimately tied to land use in most of Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa. Despite 80-90% of the incoming sediment and phosphorus coming from the Minnesota River Basin (MRB), local efforts are still critical to the overall health of Lake Pepin and its tributaries. Fortunately, local tributaries are relatively healthy and, despite comparably low impact on Lake Pepin, stakeholders on both sides of the lake are taking aggressive actions to improve water quality even more.
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