A version of this article was published in the April 2018 issue of Scuttlebutt Magazine.
Lake Pepin might be the world’s best kept secret, a natural treasure tucked away among expansive bluffs and agricultural fields. It’s a rich oasis that appears unexpectedly along winding roads, which progressively reveal more beauty, as if you are slowly entering another world. Upon arrival, the quaint community downtowns bring you to a simpler, kinder time. The scenic bluffs, which surround the water, seem to provide a barrier to the fast-pace of modern life. Yes, Lake Pepin is a magical place to live and visit. It’s the “Narnia” of Southern Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, Lake Pepin’s magic doesn’t protect it from human impacts. Impaired by excess sediment and nutrients, the lake is at a precipice of two widely different trajectories. As it stands today, Lake Pepin is flourishing, but social and ecological impacts are snowballing towards a foreboding future. At this critical juncture, Lake Pepin’s fate depends on the people it supports. By engaging with restoration efforts, stakeholders have a unique opportunity to safeguard Lake Pepin’s legacy. Hanging in the balance is a premier boating destination and the survival of local communities.
Lake Pepin is the ecological, social, and economic heart of the region. A healthy Lake Pepin supports tourism, which in turn nourishes local economies. Recreational boating alone contributes nearly $1.3 Billion to regional economies every year. These boaters may come to fish or recreate on the water, but many also enjoy driving the boat to explore adjacent communities and the wide array of shops, restaurants, and entertainment. In return, visitors create lasting memories that can’t be replicated elsewhere. Tourism is a beautiful relationship between strangers, but around Lake Pepin, it hinges on mutual access to the water.
In Upper Lake Pepin, sediment is reducing recreational access and thereby choking economic opportunities associated with it. One million metric tons of sediment settles in the area every year, an amount equivalent to a city block filled to the height of the Foshay Tower in downtown Minneapolis. Red Wing and nearby marinas can dredge themselves free of sediment build-up, but smaller towns cannot afford expensive maintenance to preserve water access. The isolation leads to devastating impacts. For some communities, protecting Lake Pepin is a fight for survival.
Inarguably, Bay City, WI is most vulnerable to the immediate impacts of sediment accumulation. Once defined by its busy commercial fishery, popular public park with beach, and bustling downtown; Bay City used to be a popular Lake Pepin destination. Even after the commercial fishery largely ended, the town was able to attract residents and visitors. As sediment continued to accumulate, however, the beach disappeared, and water access diminished.
Cathy Dosdall, a lifelong Bay City resident recalls, “The beach was beautiful when we were kids. It used to be the best beach around. People would travel here just for the beach.”
At which point, her husband, Frank Dosdall chimes in, “It’s still a nice beach. There’s just no water out there right now.”
Today, only flat-bottom boats, canoes, and kayaks can regularly access the community. Large recreational boats are kept completely at bay, pun intended.
The economic impacts are visually striking. The Bay City Campground loses customers because potential campers can’t access the water with their personal boats. Kim Lundra, Bay City’s Village Clerk and Treasurer, says that, “this in turn affects our local businesses because fewer people are getting gas, bait, and meals. We recently had a local business close because of the decrease in traffic.”
This past March, Flat Pennies Ice Cream, an iconic Bay City business known for delicious summer treats, an antique rail car, and dog-friendly amenities, announced it was working “to retain and remain a brand”, but closing its doors in Bay City. Public comments on the Flat Pennies Facebook Page suggest that its ice cream was a summer tradition, and for some, the only reason they visited Bay City.
Carrie Summers, chef and co-owner of the award-winning restaurant, Chef Shack, opened a location with limited hours in Bay City, WI. She says that recreational access and a marina for large boats, “would bring in millions to the small village and be a game changer for real estate and the surrounding counties…We could only hope that would happen one day.” If so, people might be able to enjoy Chef Shack’s Indian-spiced mini donuts every day of the week.
In the meantime, Bay City has gone from thriving to surviving. Downtown Bay City is now quiet and scattered with empty buildings. Business signs mark the last inhabitants and serve as a somber reminder of what’s been lost. Frank Dosdall remembers, “It hasn’t always been like that. Only since we’ve been increasingly cut off.”
Bay City’s history is a prophetic tale, especially since the accumulated sediment is making its way downstream. Maiden Rock, WI is next on the sediment hit list. While Maiden Rock still has tourist related businesses, including multiple restaurants, owners have noticed a decrease in traffic. The reason? Water access is diminishing and the dock in Maiden Rock is largely unusable. Boaters corroborate local perceptions by describing how their traditional visits have ended. They can no longer drive the boat over to Maiden Rock for dinner. It’s déjà vu.
PROTECTING FUTURE MEMORIES
Lake Pepin reigns as the only natural lake along the entire Mississippi River. And, like the river from which it's born, Lake Pepin has a commanding size and presence. Most recreational boaters can enjoy adventures on the water without noticing the dire situation creeping along the benthic floor. Sedimentation is primarily a concern in Upper Lake Pepin, but recreational users would be remiss to turn a blind eye. Restoration could spark a new recreational sanctuary in the area.
If you already love boating Lake Pepin, just imagine more to love: new islands with possible recreation and water access to more local attractions. If you have yet to visit Lake Pepin, imagine a full 26-miles of lake ripe for new summer traditions. Fortunately, you can help make it happen by getting involved with restoration. Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) is the grassroots organization that has spearheaded the restoration in Upper Lake Pepin and fundraising for the local cost-share of the project, estimated around $3.5 million. A contribution or membership to LPLA helps leverage political support and attract large donors to ensure the project is viable.
Supporting LPLA is the easiest way to make a difference, but you can always help by visiting Lake Pepin and experiencing the local magic for yourself. Consider taking a drive to Bay City or Maiden Rock, WI to visit local shops and restaurants. Then, imagine how much better it would be on your boat. Your future memories await.
Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) represents a community response to a disappearing lake. Sedimentation and excess nutrients are causing economic, social, and environmental impacts in and around Lake Pepin. With its members and partners, LPLA is spearheading a large-scale restoration project in Upper Lake Pepin to protect against degradation. Visit the LPLA website or connect on Facebook to learn more, stay updated, and join the action. Contact: email@example.com
 NMMA 2012 Boating Economic Impact Study