By: Mac Becco
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.
Fortunately, there are lessons to glean from Lake Pepin’s past. There was time, for example, when thick green mats of algae congealing across Lake Pepin was also considered normal. Water advisories dotted the shoreline and swimmers were accustomed to itchy rashes. It took local leadership to regain perspective and multiple grassroots efforts to induce lasting water quality improvements. The version of Lake Pepin we know and love today—we owe that to Lake Pepin’s legacy of grassroots organizing.
Many of Lake Pepin’s past leaders are still actively protecting Lake Pepin and have joined the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) to help address the alarming sedimentation rate. Dave Smith is one of these “water warriors”. Dave is an unassuming, sharp-as-Wisconsin-cheddar, civic powerhouse, who raised a family on Lake Pepin’s shore. His past experience illuminates Lake Pepin’s legacy of grassroots leadership and community response that repeatedly overcomes the impossible. It should empower all of us concerned about sedimentation today.
An insider with an outside perspective
We all have something to give Lake Pepin. Your family has been here for generations? You probably hold a trove of valuable history— specific ways that the lake and river have changed over time. Move here from somewhere else? You probably value the natural resources with a fresh perspective and have a strong motivation to preserve it. Dave Smith has both these gifts. He is an insider with an outsider perspective. As Dave puts it,
“I grew into Lake Pepin. I didn’t actually fall in love with it because I was there from the time I was born. I only came to really appreciate it when I realized what Lake Pepin was like compared to other areas of the state and country.”
Dave grew-up commercial fishing during summer vacations with his uncle, who owned Newcomb Fisheries in Pepin, WI. At the age of six, Dave remembers rowing the boat backwards to set the nets, boxing up fish for the train to Chicago, and working the local fish market.
“That’s how I became aware of the upper end of the lake. We would usually fish up there and take the fish back to Pepin. It had much deeper water back then.”
The commercial fishermen were a “colorful group,” according to Dave. They taught him how to swear, told outrageous stories, and were easy to identify by the outboard motors hanging off the front of their trucks. This was theft protection back in the day.
As one does, Dave always came back to Lake Pepin. It’s where he and his wife, Jane, spent their honeymoon—aboard a houseboat that accidently grounded at the head of the lake. It’s where they brought their three sons—Brian, Ben, and Burton— for vacation during the summer. And finally, it’s where they permanently moved and opened a bait shop, at the request of those sons.
The Smiths’ showed their love for Lake Pepin by playing, exploring, and soaking in every moment. The boys went fishing, hunting, waterskiing, and everything else the lake had to offer—they even built their own boats. Dave says,
“Our boys didn’t take anything for granted because, originally, we were just coming for the weekends. That outside perspective makes a big difference.”
As outsiders, the entire family seemed to bring something special with them—a recognition of the local magic and a commitment to keeping that magic alive. In time, however, the Smiths’ grew into insiders with local knowledge about the lake and its changing water quality conditions. Today, they are all active LPLA members. Dave and Jane routinely share local insight and currently display a large LPLA Supporter Sign at their metalwork shop. Last summer, Brain went above and beyond by dancing enthusiastically as Pepie the Lake Monster during Big River Give!
We are lucky to have their collective knowledge and charisma in our corner.
Civic engagement makes the impossible possible
For decades, Dave has been leading the family tradition of protecting Lake Pepin. He’s been quick to get involved with local efforts to address specific threats like wastewater pollution, frac sand mining, and excess sediment. He’s also Lake Pepin’s Commissioner for the Mississippi River Parkway Commission (MRPC), a ten-state collaboration along the Great River Road.
The most important lesson to glean from all Dave’s experience might be this: the impossible is often possible, but it requires a lot of civic engagement.
In the 1970’s, Dave was involved with Citizens for a Clean Mississippi (CCMI), which was one of the emerging citizen groups that formed in response to the wastewater pollution—think raw sewage—in Lake Pepin. Fish and wildlife were impacted, but it was also a human health hazard. Dave vividly remembers the large and persistent algae blooms.
“We had terrible algae in the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s. It was so bad you couldn’t possibly go swimming. It was blue-green algae with thick mats. It was terrible…After we bought our bait shop, there were a few summers when the algae was so bad it killed the fish. Even the bullheads!”
CCMI is famous for the slogan, “Not Everybody Can Live Upstream”, and organizing over 3000 members to “protect the cleanliness and beauty of the Upper Mississippi River.” The group conducted research, advocated for PCB legislation, and mounted a successful legal campaign against upstream wastewater treatment and sewage dumping practices. Their efforts resulted in tangible improvements to the Upper Mississippi River and Lake Pepin.
Dave credits much of CCMI’s success to Dorothy Hill, who’s passionate leadership brought people together. As Dave puts it, the secret was,
“Dorothy Hill’s enthusiasm. Anybody who spent any time with her just fell in love with what she was doing. In the early years, it seemed like an impossible task. I don’t think all of us really thought that it would happen. But she just kept working at it.”
Currently, Dave is an officer of the Lake Pepin Partners in Preservation (LPPP), a grassroots organization that initially formed to protect Lake Pepin from frac sand mining operations. LPPP commissioned research that raised concerns about economic impacts to the tourism industry in the area. Dave explains,
“Our goal was to prevent any more mining in the area and definitely prevent any processing and loading in Lake Pepin We were very successful and much of that was because of Bill Mavity. But, we also had a good group of people.”
In 2013, Pepin County adopted the first frac-free zone in Minnesota or Wisconsin by banning all mining operations along Lake Pepin. LPPP’s strategy has been successful replicated in other communities since.
Time and time again, grassroots leadership, like Dorothy Hill and Bill Mavity, has been invaluable. Of course, leaders need support to be successful and, fortunately for Lake Pepin, the people who love Lake Pepin always seems ready for the call to action. When we are united together, Lake Pepin’s legacy has proven that the impossible is possible.
Looking at Downstream Restoration
Sedimentation has been a pervasive problem that previous organizing efforts were aware of but didn’t tackle directly. The reason probably relates to the size and complexity of the problem—sediment sources are widespread, across a large landscape, and often without clear ownership or responsibility. And since sediment accumulates, the local impacts cannot be “simply” solved by mitigating the problem at the source. The sedimentation we have today is here to stay…unless we also make efforts to restore Lake Pepin.
As a Commissioner of MRPC, Dave is connected to environmental issues and projects along the entire Mississippi River. He has seen how river restoration projects, like the one spearheaded by LPLA in Lake Pepin, can have a huge benefit to an area.
“…People down in Pool 9 are really happy with the island restoration. The Commissioner from Ferryville brings it up and talks about how good it was,” he says.
Dave’s perspective is particularly useful because the restoration concepts, which include dredging and land construction, are new ideas to our stretch of the river. And sometimes, new ideas are met with skepticism.
“Given the situation we’re in at the upper end of the lake, we need some help from people who have been successful in other places to convince us how to sell it to the people who are not convinced of the idea. I’m sure the island building wasn’t population down in Pool 7, 8, and 9 when it started, but it is very popular now,” says Dave.
Restoration in Lake Pepin won’t actually include new islands, but instead peninsula extensions in critical backwaters at the head of the lake. The underlying rationale, however, is the same: dredge deeper water to improve water clarity and use that dredge material to build land formations that will reduce the wind and wave action that stirs up sediment. The improved water clarity, along with native plantings, is expected to initiate a cascade of ecological improvements.
“I hope we get restoration going in Lake Pepin so we can set an example and do more in the area,” says Dave.
LPLA and its supporters aren’t giving up on sediment reduction efforts, like the Forever Green Initiative, but view restoration as a tangible opportunity to make a real difference. It will help maintain current uses, protect against irreversible damage, and improve the lake’s resiliency to higher, more erosive flows.
Sedimentation might be the most complicated threat Lake Pepin has ever faced, but that’s not a reason to look away from our responsibility. As Dave’s experience teaches us, we aren’t working in an isolation bubble. We are building on a long and successful legacy of local efforts to guide and inspire—both before us and downstream of us.
Concluding Thoughts: Combining Local Forces
As our name suggests, Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA) is truly allied with Lake Pepin’s legacy. Most of the people and organizations in this member profile have joined LPLA in our efforts to address sedimentation in Lake Pepin. We would like to thank CCMI, LPPP, and the Wisconsin-Great River Road for becoming sponsors; Pepin County for pledging $5,000 to restoration, and Judy and Gib Krohn (CCMI, LPPP), Bill Mavity and Jane Whiteside (LPPP), and of course, Dave and Jane Smith (CCMI, LPPP, MRPC) for sharing their wisdom from the past as active LPLA members. (And, all of you reading. There are so many “water warriors” for Lake Pepin that we can’t mention them all here. See additional member profiles.)
CCMI—the organization led by Dorothy Hill and responsible for pollution reductions in the 1970’s—hasn't been active for some time, but they are officially closing up shop and passing on their torch. CCMI is giving LPLA their remaining funds—more than $9,000—along with information the group collected over the years. To honor CCMI's gift and legacy, LPLA will have a short ceremony at the Lake Pepin Benefit Concert on June 8th.
LPLA will continue to explore Lake Pepin’s legacy as we celebrate our 10th anniversary. Our next member profile will be unique collaboration to honor Lloyd Spriggle from Bay City, WI. Prior to the Clean Water Act, Lloyd was a highly influential environmental leader who led efforts to reduce pollution in Lake Pepin and the Mississippi River. You’ve probably crossed the Lloyd Spriggle Memorial Bridge, which spans the Wisconsin Channel of the Mississippi River near the head of Lake Pepin.
If you have a story to tell about Lake Pepin’s legacy, please email us at email@example.com.