Meeting held in Prairie du Chien regarding river damage

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These are just some of the thousands of dead trees in Pool 10 of the Mississippi River as viewed during a cruise Thursday, Oct. 15. (Photo by Ted Pennekamp)

By Ted Pennekamp


Prairie Sand and Gravel owner, Blair Dillman of Prairie du Chien, hosted a meeting with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, and a few local residents Thursday to discuss the high water in Pool 10 during recent years, along with the loss of numerous trees and some islands.

Dan Fasching, the Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District Water Manager for the Upper Mississippi River, told the group via cell phone that the past 10 years, and especially the past five years, have been a wet cycle for the Upper Midwest. In fact, the past five years have been the wettest on record. 

Fasching noted that 2019 was by far the wettest on record for the Upper Midwest and the Upper Mississippi River. In fact, he said the volume of water that flowed through Pool 10 in 2019 shattered the all time record. For the year, 77.9 million acre feet of water flowed through Pool 10. The former record was 59 million acre feet in 1993. These records have been kept since 1965. The average volume since 1965 is 38 million acre feet.

The locks and dams were built in the 1930s, and were not designed for flood or high water control.

“With high flow, we don’t have any control,” said Fasching. “We have some control at normal to low flow.” Fasching also explained that at very high flow, all gates on all dams in the Upper Mississippi River have to be wide open, there is simply no choice. “We just have to get out of the way and let the river do its thing,” he said, in noting that if they attempted to hold water back, severe scour holes and damage of the dams would be the result under such conditions.

Blair Dillman asked Fasching how much acre feet of storage is there in Pool 9 versus Pool 10. Fasching explained that there really is no such storage. Fasching said the locks and dams do not have flood storage. They have storage but it’s such a small amount that it only effects things at normal and low flow, not flood flow.

In short, regarding the record-setting high flows of the past five years, there was nothing the Corps of Engineers could do to stop the high flows and the near constant state of high water.

The river elevation in the latter part of 2020 has gone down because of less rain in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. In fact, it has been at about or below 8 feet for the past several weeks.

Anyone who has been on the river in the past few years, however, has seen the widespread death involving the floodplain forest caused by the extended period of high water.

Thousands of trees in all of the pools of the Upper Mississippi River have died. The death of the trees leads to erosion and the loss of habitat such as islands.

Brandon Jones of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who is the acting regional hunting and fishing chief for Interior Region 3, said it is not known how many trees, or acres of trees, have died in Pools 9 and 10. He said that because of COVID-19, surveys were not able to be conducted this year.

Jones said that all of the pools of the Upper Mississippi River sustained tree loss. It was also noted that Pool 9 had a higher proportion of dead trees than Pool 10, as shown on a graph provided by Dan Fasching. Some pools have more low elevation areas, and therefore, sustain more tree loss. The loss in Pools 9 and 10 has been catastrophic, however. Pools 9 and 10 had a higher proportion of dead trees than Pools 3, 5A, and 8. Most of the dead trees are silver maples, which had more or less taken over the floodplain forest over the past several years. 

The graph showed that by far the highest number of dead trees occurred in 2019 over that of the previous few years. Higher total dead in 2019 indicates cumulative impacts of the three previous years of growing season flooding.

The growing season average flow (March 1 to Sept. 30) in 1971 was 56,100 cubic feet per second (cfs). In 1972, it was 68,800; 1973–76,400; 1974–55,100; and in 1975 it was 65,600. In 2016, it was 84,000 cfs; 2017–84,100; 2018–85,700; and in 2019, a whopping 129,000. In 2020, it was 86,600. 

Blair Dillman pointed out on two maps that two small islands in the area have disappeared completely due to high water in recent years, while another larger island has been reduced considerably. 

Everyone in attendance praised the McGregor Lake Project that began this spring near Prairie du Chien, but they also asked why there aren’t more bank line stabilization projects or island restoration projects.

“How do we restore all of this destruction?” asked former Courier Press publisher Gary Howe.

Corps personnel said there have been recent projects in Pool 9 including the Harper’s Slough Project and the Conway Lake Project, as well as the McGregor Lake Project in Pool 10. They said obtaining the funding takes time and admitted there is a fair amount of “red tape” as far as getting projects started. It was noted that it takes three to five years for most projects to get underway, and that there is a priority list. In short, there simply is not enough money.

Howe asked about an individual such as Blair Dillman conducting rip-rap, island restoration or other such projects on a smaller scale than the five-year, $20 million McGregor Lake Project.

“We have a person right here who has the time, equipment, material and proximity,” said Howe. “If I were you, I’d tell him, ‘Go for it.’”

Jones said private individuals or businesses can conduct such projects as long as they get permits from the Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the DNR, depending upon the project. Again, it was noted that unfortunately, gaining approval for such a project would take time.

In the meantime, islands are being lost, and other areas are undesirably being silted in.

Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Services personnel at the meeting agreed that they wished they had a magic wand so there could be more habitat restoration projects and that they could begin much sooner.

Following the meeting in the parking lot of The Barn Restaurant, the group embarked on a short river cruise aboard the Maiden Voyage Tour boat to view the damage in the Prairie du Chien area.

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