Your Questions Answered: The Lake Pepin Restoration Project

By: Mac Becco, LPLA Communications Director

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.

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Mac: Could you explain the Restoration Project for the public?

Rylee: I think everybody who lives down here knows that Lake Pepin has been filling in with sediment, which has caused Upper Lake Pepin, including critical backwaters, to be more shallow and turbid, meaning light cannot penetrate the water column and feed important ecological processes. It has negative implications for vegetation, wildlife, and recreation.

The Restoration Project would increase the depths in the lake and construct islands to keep those backwaters protected so they don’t continue to fill in with sediment. We would then expect habitat improvement, water clarity, and more aquatic vegetation. The islands, in addition to protecting the backwaters, would also provide terrestrial habitat.

Mac: Who is involved with this project so far?

Rylee: LPLA and Audubon MN are the two organizations that have been spearheading the Restoration Project from the beginning. We sent a proposal to the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to initiate the project. Moving forward, we have agreed to be a partner in community education and fundraising.

Now that the project is moving forward, the biggest partner is the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), who determined that there is a federal interest in Lake Pepin restoration and have committed $200,000 to a feasibility study this year.

Additionally, the Wisconsin DNR has agreed to be the state sponsor if there is public support and the project meets their own objectives, which align closely with those of LPLA.

Now that the feasibility study is getting underway, the Minnesota DNR and Ducks Unlimited have also joined the conversation. Additionally, all the communities around Lake Pepin have passed letters of resolution supporting the project and so have some of the elected officials.

Mac: That’s great. You said that the WI DNR has agreed to be the project sponsor if there is public support. How can the public get involved moving forward?

Rylee: The ACOE will be having a series of public meetings. The first already happened on July 11th, but there will be more public meetings as the concepts are more clearly defined based on any potential limitations and costs. It would be great to have public input on areas that should be protected from construction, local knowledge that may benefit planning, and any questions or concerns early-on in the process.

In addition, I think contacting local officials and expressing your support for the Restoration Project is always beneficial. At this point, we don’t have anyone directly opposing the project since it is beneficial to the whole community. However, political influence will be important to maintain project momentum. The more our elected officials are aware that the public wants to see this happen, the likelier we are to get the necessary funding and proceed in a timely fashion.

Mac: I understand that there additional ways to get involved through LPLA. Is that true?

Rylee: That is true. Becoming a member of LPLA is a great way to show your support for this project. It makes a big difference when we are advocating to our elected officials to share how many paying members we have that are dedicated to this cause and want the lake preserved for future generations.

Mac: Good to know. You also mentioned that there are some differences between the WI DNR project objectives and those of LPLA. Could you describe those to me?

Rylee: Sure. The primary difference is the location of island construction. The WI DNR has a lot of interest in the backwaters, just upstream of the head of the lake. They want dredging to occur and some island extensions constructed to keep those waters protected.

LPLA would like to extend those same islands a little further downstream into the open water. We would also like, if possible, to improve recreational access by dredging an access channel to some of the backwaters that are included in the project proposal. For example, dredging out some of the backwaters in Bay City would provide a lot of habitat benefits, but including a dredge channel would also help boaters have more access.

Mac: It seems like a well-rounded approach. The ACOE is one of the main partners for the restoration project, but they are also responsible for the dredge management plan in Lower Lake Pepin. What is the connection between these two project or activities?

Rylee: The Restoration Project and the Dredge Management Plan are not related. The only point of overlap is that both projects are discussing the use of the dredge material at the lower end of the lake to some extent.

With regards to the dredge placement concern at the lower end of the lake right now, the ACOE has put together a 40-year dredge management plan to keep the commercial navigation channel open. In that plan, they need to find placement sites for about 10 million cubic yards of dredge material and they’re simply running out of spots to put that dredge material.

The Restoration Project is considering at using about 300,000 cubic yards of that same material barged upstream for a beneficial purpose in terms of ecological restoration. However, the amount of material that would potentially be used for the restoration project is just a drop in the bucket compared to the overall material that ACOE is ultimately looking to place somewhere.

So, the projects are very different. One is simply addressing placement for dredge material and the other is about making ecosystem improvements.

Mac: Thank you for clarifying that is such a succinct way. Could you explain why island construction at the head of Lake Pepin is possible, but not further downstream?

Rylee: Sure. The lower part of the lake has depths anywhere from 20-60 feet and dumping all that dredge a whole material could ultimately get washed back into the navigation channel. Obviously, that wouldn’t be ideal since the entire purpose of the dredging is to keep the navigation channel open.

At the head of the lake, where depths are 2-4 feet, it makes a lot more sense to construct an island or extend existing islands because the material can be constructed in a way that it will stay in place. Plus, when strategically placed in shallow water, it will provide ecological benefits throughout the area, including protection of backwaters.

Mac: Has island construction been done before?

Rylee: Oh yes! The ACOE has been building islands for about 20 years. The WI DNR has been involved with a lot of those projects and have seen success, especially in terms of reducing the resuspended sediment in the water. A number of projects have been done up and down the Mississippi River and they have provided great benefits to the local habitat.

Mac: So, I have to ask. Why even bother with a restoration project when high sediment loads from upstream sources continue to fill in the lake?

Rylee: That is a valid question. Sediment loading from the Minnesota River is the biggest issue and absolutely needs to be addressed if we want to preserve Lake Pepin for future generations. However, the progress in reducing sediment input is slow and complicated. It requires a lot of funding, more than the state governments have available. Meanwhile, agriculture remains exempt from the Clean Water Act so most mitigation is voluntary right now.

The Restoration Project would not solve that problem, but it would provide a band-aid as we work on reducing sediment input. The sediment reduction timeline for Minnesota River Basin extends about 50 years, which aligns with the restoration project lifespan. So, the Restoration Project buys us time to mitigate upstream sources of sediment without letting Lake Pepin continue to degrade. And hopefully, we can make a difference upstream before it’s too late.

Mac: Wonderful. It sounds like a two-pronged approach is important to protect Lake Pepin.

Rylee: Exactly. If we don’t do anything, sediment will just continue to accumulate. We’ll lose access to the lake, the water will become more turbid, and local fish and wildlife will be threatened. I don’t think anybody wants to see that happen.

Mac: Well, thanks so much Rylee. Do you have any additional thoughts?

Rylee: I just want to say that I think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The fact that we have the interest and funds from the federal government, support from our U.S. Representatives, and commitment from elected officials at the state and local level means that it’s a great chance for everybody in the community to get involved.  Something like this may not be possible again for a very long time so we need to take full advantage of this opportunity. LPLA is here for the communities to rally around and provide structure for a local grassroots movement.