Scenes like this are becoming all to common on Upper Lake Pepin. Photo credit: Zach Paider, Bill’s Bay Marina

By MacKenzie Consoer, Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance

(Red Wing, MN 1/25/2018) — Boat groundings in Lake Pepin, the widest section of the Mississippi River, reached an all-time high in 2017. Several grounding events were accompanied by significant health and financial injuries. The main culprit is sediment filling in Lake Pepin, a natural process exacerbated by upstream land practices. Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance (LPLA), a grassroots organization created in response to sedimentation, has been at the helm informing the public about impacts such as boat groundings, isolated communities, and the lake’s ecological vulnerability to collapse. By educating lake users, they hope to mobilize support for a large-scale restoration project, which requires a 35% local cost-share.

“The most sustainable action is reducing the amount of sediment coming into Lake Pepin each year, but that’s a slow process. In the meantime, there are real social and environmental impacts that can be mitigated with federally available funds. By doing nothing, these impacts will get worse and may not be reversible in the future,” says LPLA Executive Director, Rylee Main.

LPLA spearheaded the restoration project, which is now in a feasibility planning stage with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WI DNR), and other partners. The project is officially classified as habitat restoration but is expected to have ancillary benefits for recreational users and local communities. For example, recreational boater safety will improve by increasing depths and creating islands to direct safer navigation. LPLA is also advocating for access to local communities, who have visitor attractions, but are currently isolated by shallow waters.

 

Traveling upstream from Lake Pepin, the navigational channel is easy to miss
Aerial photo comparison of sediment accumulation in Upper Lake Pepin

In the meantime, recreational boaters should continue to visit beautiful Lake Pepin, but simply stay informed and slowdown in dangerous areas. Headed upstream, especially, boaters can easily miss the river channel, which is narrowly entrenched in an expansive, yet unexpectedly shallow area. Perceived as deep open water, many boaters are operating at full-throttle, speeds up to 40 mph, when they suddenly hit bottom and launch their boat and/or passengers into the air. Fortunately, the same sediment that contributes to boat groundings also creates a soft substrate to cushion impact.

There haven’t been any life-threatening injuries, but the rare broken bones and bruising is enough to ruin any great weekend. Financial injury is most common, particularly with larger boats that are difficult to tow. Based on the grounding severity, the cost of getting towed varies widely, but can reach tens of thousands of dollars. More than likely, there are additional costs required to repair boat damages. For even the wealthiest boater, these are significant expenses that need not exist.

Boaters need to be vigilant but cannot be blamed for boat groundings. Sedimentation rates are 10x higher than normal, which is an annual sediment load the size of a city block filled to the height of the Foshay Tower in downtown Minneapolis. The ACOE maintains the navigational channel, but as sediment fills in around it, the channel is getting narrower and steeper with little room for driver error. Although not outright visible, the area is slowly turning into a navigational ditch, of use only to barges.

Further intensifying the problem, buoys marking the navigation channel are usually displaced or removed by barges maneuvering the narrow corridor. For visiting boaters, especially, navigating the channel can be likened to driving down a road without signs, or even worse, with signs misplaced to lead people in the wrong direction. It is a recipe for disaster. Even experienced boaters can become grounding victims given the treacherous combination.

Boat groundings should be an immediate cause for concern, but instead are becoming dangerously normalized. Area residents report having favorite viewing areas and entertaining guests by watching boaters mistaken the open water in Upper Lake Pepin as safe for navigation. Local boaters, who are familiar with the problem, are accustomed to periodically pushing themselves free. Some have even commented that boater naivety or intoxication is to be blamed for the most severe groundings-a perception that is unsupported and denies the severity of the underlying problem all together.

To be fair, boat groundings are not a new phenomenon, and most are resolved by individuals freeing themselves or getting passerby assistance. For now, most do not result in injury or expensive repairs. And yes, the danger is most formidable for visiting and infrequent boaters, but it doesn’t mean recklessness is to blame. Boaters are simply traversing unassuming open water that mirrors the rest of the lake, which is generally obstacle free. The point worth rallying around is that sediment continues to accumulate, and the problem is getting worse for everybody.

LPLA is striving to remove blame from the narrative and unite diverse interests together for restoration. Federal funds are covering 65% of the project costs, but LPLA has to obtain the local cost-share, estimated to be $3.5 million, to ensure the restoration process continues. The City of Red Wing has already committed $100,000 and LPLA continues to meet with other potential donors, who are highly motivated by strong membership. If you’re interested in helping LPLA create political pressure and attract financial resources for restoration, visit www.lakepepinlegacyalliance.org to learn more and become a member.