By Gregg Hoffmann
For several years, one of the biggest reconstruction projects in the Midwest has been going on — in the middle of the Mississippi River.
The Pool 8 project is located within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, just west of Stoddard, Wis., and east of Brownsville, Minn. It includes constructing 26 islands, which were virtually wiped out by high water after Lock and Dam No. 8 was constructed in 1937. Higher water allowed wind and wave action to erode the islands, resulting in the loss of aquatic plants and valuable habitat for birds, reptiles, amphibians and other animals.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, U.S. Geological Survey, Minnesota and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and others have cooperated on the project, which started in 2006.
The benefits of projects like this island restoration is varied. First, the habitats for birds, fish and other animals is being restored. That has an intrinsic value that is hard to put a dollar figure on, but it also should lead to continued growth in recreation and eco-tourism industries.
By restoring the islands and more natural flows to the river, the impacts of flooding and high water periods could be reduced. Land values also tend to go up along riverways that have been restored.
The rehabilitation is quite a project. Sand and water are pumped as far as five miles along the river to the island sites. Rock and other base are installed to gather the materials. Bulldozers, which from the shore seem to be working right out of the water, shape the contours of the islands. Various cover foliage then is planted, and as one worker said, “the river plants what it wants to grow.”
“It really is a team effort out there, between various agencies and our contractors,” said James Nissen, district manager for the Refuge. “We do the designs, but the ingenuity and creativity of our contractors who are out there doing the work really get it done.”
Public tours were recently conducted of the work. “We started the tours last year,” Nissen said. “There’s a lot of interest in the project because it is visible from Highway 26. So, we take the opportunity to let people know what progress we are making.”
Visitors also come for the wildlife — the area serves as one of the migratory havens for more than 300 species of birds. Fifty percent of the world’s canvasback ducks spend time in the area.
Twenty percent of the population of Eastern Tundra Swans stop on their migratory routes from northern Canada to Chesapeake Bay.
The arrival of the swans has become an annual tourist event. The birds begin arriving in mid-October, and some stay until mid- to late-December.
“We draw people from all over, not just the Midwest but also from other states and foreign countries,” Nissen said. “It’s quite a gathering, and people always have a lot of questions.”
The area also is home to 119 species of fish. While hunting is not allowed in the Pool 8 area, fishing and other types of recreational activities are allowed, with some exceptions during peak migratory times.
About 3.7 million annual visits are made to the area for hunting where it is allowed, fishing, wildlife observation and other recreation.
Eco-tourism is a growing industry on the Big River. The Mississippi Explorer, which was used to transport some of the 300 people who showed up for the public tours, runs boats out of La Crosse, Prairie du Chien, Lansing, Iowa, and Galena, Illinois. Other nature tours are conducted in the area.
The project has been rather costly. Estimated costs for the north and west islands is Pool 8 are $9.5 million. Costs for the four islands slightly further south are estimated at $5.3 million.
An east island was completed in 2006 for $780,000. The Army Corps of Engineers completed several islands in 2007-08 and several more are scheduled for completion this summer.
All this work has been funded through federal funds. Additional islands are being designed and will be built as funding becomes available. Nissen said work on those islands are scheduled to start in 2011 and be completed in 2012.
The entire Environmental Management Program, which includes much more than just the Pool 8 project, is authorized to receive $33.5 million annually. For fiscal year 2009, the allocation is $17.7 million. Project design, construction and other costs are fully paid by the federal government if the project is located on lands managed as a national wildlife refuge. For any other projects, costs are funded 65 percent by the federal government and 35 percent from non-federal sources.
“Any time you are doing marine construction, it is expensive,” Nissen said. “We have been funded through the EMP funds and could be tapping other sources. We also are receiving some stimulus money from the American Recovery Act.”
According to the Refuge web site, the Mississippi River annually contributes an estimated $1 billion in recreational benefits to the region. Refuge visitation generates nearly $90 million per year in economic output.
Visitation to the refuge, plus visits to adjacent counties in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, generates another $255 million annually.
The Pool 8 project created some controversy because of a drawdown of water in the backwater area. But, adequate water depth for commercial transportation and other navigation has been maintained in the main corridors of the river.
While Pool 8 might be getting the most attention right now, it is by no means the only project along the river. In fact, 25 projects have been completed — ranging from island reconstruction to dredging to dike construction and bank restoration — from Gutenberg, Iowa, to the Twins Cities since the EMP was authorized by an Act of Congress in 1986.
Perhaps the most valuable benefit of projects like these is summed up by a couple signs along Highway 26, on the Minnesota side of Pool 8. One reads that the Upper Mississippi Refuge is “perhaps the most important corridor of fish and wildlife habitat in the central United States.”
The second deals with the migration of the tundra swans: “You are lucky. Not everyone can say they have witnessed the spectacle of tens of thousands of tundra swans making their way on the 4,200 mile journey to and from their wintering grounds.
“Stop where swans have gathered and listen. You will hear the melodious bugling call of swans talking to each other. It is a sound you will not soon forget.”
— Hoffmann has written on a variety of topics for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com. He writes the WisBiz GreenBiz feature monthly.