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Islands of Lake Pepin

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NEAR RED WING, Minn. (KTTC) – With summer at our doorstep, folks are gearing up for another season of adventures on the waters of Lake Pepin.

Those who come back to the lake year after year have noticed changes in the body of water such as increased boat groundings, rapidly expanding islands, and a lack of wildlife.

In an effort to protect and preserve Lake Pepin, a dedicated group of people formed the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance 10 years ago, with the mission of stopping Lake Pepin from disappearing.

“It’s people that live all around the lake or some people that come and visit the lake and have fond memories that want to see this lake protected so that we have clean water, a healthy habitat for waterfowl and for fish,” said Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance Executive Director Rylee Main.

The alliance is spearheading a large-scale restoration project to help the areas most effected by a natural build up of sediment, particularly at the upper end of Lake Pepin.

“So if you imagine a full city block raised about 32 stories high, that’s about one million metric tons of material that settles at the head of the lake every single year,” said Main.

Over the last 100 years, the rate of change has gone from a more natural process to ten times the amount of material being deposited at the north end of Lake Pepin.

This creates problems for the ecosystem. It also affects the economies of nearby lake-side communities like Bay City, Wisconsin, which has lost the use of its harbor.

“Back when I was younger, we would use this boat ramp every night,” said Zach Paider, an avid Lake Pepin boater. “We use to live just up the road. It must have been in the late 1990s, roughly, that my parents got to the point where we couldn’t put the boat in there, we couldn’t leave the harbor.”

“It’s this huge volume of material and that’s creating impairments for the economy locally with reduced boat traffic, but then it’s really effecting the ecosystem, the type of vegetation that grows, the habitat for fish that typically overwinter in the area, for ducks,” said Main.

In the last 50 years, residents have noticed water levels become more shallow and very “turbid”, which means it’s continually full of sediment.

“The turbid water prevents sunlight from penetrating into the water, hence you don’t have any aquatic vegetation,” said Bruce Ause, a Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance member.

Without that vegetation, there’s no source of food for wildlife that live in or around the lake, or even for migratory waterfowl.

“We live on a huge migratory flyway, and at one time there were a lot of ducks that would land here in the fall; now there are hardly any ducks,” said Ause. “We have a huge number of Tundra Swans that navigate through here, spring and fall. They never stop because there’s nothing for them to eat.”

So where is all of this sediment coming from? Well, about 80 to 90 percent of it is coming from the Minnesota River. It’s a young river, so it’s naturally primed to erode but with changes in land use practices and precipitation, the problem is now more severe.

“This island that’s straight out in front of us, it’s grown about a mile I’d say in the last 50 years,” said Main. “And that’s all that sediment build up, once it gets so shallow the tree roots can establish.”

To allow for barge traffic, The Army Corps of Engineers dredges a navigational channel with a depth of 9 feet, but it’s much shallower outside of the channel.

“That’s where a lot of the boat groundings happen is right in this area, just because it goes from 9 feet to 2 or 3 feet deep really quickly,” said Main.

So, something needs to be done, and the Army Corps of Engineers has an idea. It wants to build islands on the north end of Lake Pepin by using that build up of sediment.

Proposed project plan. Provided by Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance.

The project would improve water clarity, create fish and wildlife habitat, and increase recreational access in Upper Lake Pepin.

“So locally in this area, we want to dredge out the lake so it’s about 8 feet deep and that’s going to provide adequate habitat for fish that need that depth to overwinter in the area,” said Main.

Along with dredging, the project would include building and reconstructing islands. The alliance says if built a certain way, islands can direct where the sediment accumulates and break up the wind, allowing for clearer water and the growth of healthy vegetation.

“When you’re creating those new islands, you have the opportunity to plant vegetation that’s going to provide new habitat for migratory birds and nesting habitat for waterfowl,” said Main.

As part of the restoration project, Bay City Harbor would be dredged out, giving life back to an old river town and a healthy home back to a crippled ecosystem.

“That’s going to be huge because that’s going to allow access for boaters in general, recreational fisherman, the duck hunters, so everyone will be able to use this area again,” said Paider. “And with the restoration happening right in front of us, it will all come together as being one great thing for the community and the ecosystem.”

The Army corps of Engineers will fund 65 percent of the project cost, but Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance is responsible for fundraising the local cost-share, estimated at $3.5 million.

If everything goes as planned and the necessary funding is raised, construction is planned to begin in 2021.

Sarah Gannon

Sarah Gannon

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