For generations, people have been sounding the alarm about Lake Pepin’s sedimentation. The alarm has been ringing for so long that a new concern is whether or not we are still hearing it. For too many, it is easy to shrug one’s shoulders at the muddy Minnesota River as it discolors the Mississippi River just upstream of Lake Pepin. “It’s been like that my entire life,” we’ve heard old-time river users say. But the fact is— time doesn’t make it right. If anything, it simply means that change is long overdue.
In the morning, as I point my sailboat’s slender bow out past the breakwater at the Lake City Marina, the old diesel engine putt-putt-putting below my feet, there is no wind. Ampersand, my vintage 38-foot sloop, wrinkles her own reflection across the flat-calm steel-gray surface of the broad Lake Pepin. Six miles to the east, I can make out the rooftops of the town of Pepin; to the north, the tiny village of Stockholm lies nestled in a shadowed fold of the high limestone bluffs. The calm of mornings like this belies the wind at noon.
I've been seeing it most of my life. The river, which I've made my home along, wildly fluctuating in terms of its flow. It can be nearly dried up and then a week or two later it's rushing and flooding over its banks. Too often the river becomes a torrent of muddy brown water, forcefully making it's way from Northern Iowa all the way to Mankato where it joins with the Minnesota River. That water passing by my backyard carries soil, fertilizer, and other more nefarious manmade chemicals as it moves toward St. Paul before turning South to Lake Pepin and making its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
Upper Lake Pepin is impaired for turbidity or “cloudy” water that results from sediment suspended in the water column. Water turbidity reduces light penetration, which is needed for healthy vegetation to take root and grow. Without healthy vegetation, the ecological impacts reverberate across the entire food chain…
There has been a flurry of news around Lake Pepin restoration recently—and for good reason. The Lessard-Sam’s Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) recently recommended Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance’s (LPLA) proposal of $750,000 for Lake Pepin habitat restoration to the Minnesota legislature. Soon after, we learned that Lake Pepin was selected for a federal pilot program (Section 1122) to bolster and expand restoration efforts already underway.
LPLA has been receiving the same common sense questions about restoration from the public. Hopefully, we can provide some valuable insight into:
1. Why do a restoration project in Upper Lake Pepin when the underlying problem is upstream sediment loads?
2. Why haul sediment from Lower Lake Pepin when there is excess sediment already in Upper Lake Pepin?
By Bill Mavity, LPLA Member & Council of Champions
“Independent people who think for themselves and are competent to do it because they are enlightened, they read and are abreast of the best and newest thought.” That was Mark Twain’s characterization of the people he encountered in his travels as a steamboat pilot along the upper Mississippi River including Lake Pepin in 1882 that he described in “Life on the Mississippi River” in 1883.
Mark Twain’s influence, bringing me to respect, understand and love the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin began in 1954. My social studies teacher at my high school had the class read and discuss “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Those stories fascinated me and filled me with envy, particularly at the exploits of Huckleberry Finn floating down the River.
I entered my research with the assumption that farmers would be very politically and ideologically divided when it came to questions of water quality. To some extent this is true, but in conversations with rural folks I have found that regard for the land, water resources, and human and animal inhabitants is generally high across the board. Although not all farmers actively protect water through their farming practices, it is worth noting that many are very open to stewardship as a concept. This openness is a perfect place to begin discussions about actively serving the land through sustainable farming practices and water quality protection.
In my first blog of the summer, I discussed an investigation vegetative roots penetrating and blocking the sub-surface distribution line in saturated buffers. As part of that work, we will plant an MDA-developed seed mix over the distribution line on the saturated buffer this fall. Our goal is to determine the point at which roots in the distribution line impact saturated buffer performance.
In many of my previous blogs, I have discussed the importance of no-till farming and other conservation farming practices. These practices are vital in maintaining and/or restoring soil quality, in part because they disturb soil only minimally, allowing soil organisms to thrive.
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.