Upper Miss Pool 6 drawdown in bit of limbo

Trempealeau, Wis. – State and federal officials have three times
previously tried to draw down the Upper Mississippi River’s Pool 6
between Winona, Minn., and Trempealeau, but they’ve been
sidetracked each time – by recreational access issues and by water
flow conditions.

A planned fourth attempt to draw down the pool, in an effort to
restore vegetation and improve fish and wildlife habitat, might
meet the same fate.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” said Jeff DeZellar,
project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lead
agency in the effort, meant to mimic natural changes in water
levels prior to the construction of locks and dams.

A minimal amount of flow is needed to maintain a navigational
channel in the river, and right now, the Upper Miss has a flow well
below normal. Whereas the average flow rate of the river here
usually is 60,000 cubic feet per second at this time of year, the
rate currently is about 37,000 cfs, DeZellar said. Government
officials have said anything below 32,000 cfs could put the project
in jeopardy.

“We’re well, well, well below average,” DeZellar said. “It’s
pretty breathtaking” how fast it’s dropped. He added that water
this low this early in the year is a bad omen for the project, one
that’s been completed on two other Upper Mississippi River pools –
8 (in 2001 and 2002) and 5 (2005 and 2006). The Pool 6 drawdown is
slated to begin in about a month.

Also under consideration by the Corps of Engineers, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the DNRs
of Wisconsin and Minnesota, is the drawdown’s effects on businesses
that rely on the ability of crafts to navigate from the main
channel to marinas. One of those in Pool 6 is Sunset Bay Marina in
Trempealeau, owned by Vicki Husby.

Without additional dredging – something Husby said is
cost-prohibitive – about 20 to 25 boats moored at her marina would
have to seek out a new option on the river. Those larger boats have
fixed-position propellers, and would be cut off from reaching the
river’s main channel from the marina, she said. They make up about
one-fourth to one-third of the crafts that call Sunset Bay home in
the summertime.

Husby said she supports the agencies’ habitat-enhancement goals,
but says there are better times to negatively affect a business,
rather than in the midst of a nation-wide recession.

“This is no time to mess with a person’s livelihood,” she
said.

She said it takes marina operators many years to acquire a fleet
of customers. If they move on, they’re hard to get back.

Many of those who frequent the marina also are transient boaters
– marina hoppers, Husby said – who bring spending dollars to river
towns like Trempealeau, a town of about 1,000 south of Winona.
Closing off the marina to potential customers would affect more
than her business, she said.

If it were a short-term inconvenience, it would be easier to
swallow, Husby added. But, the drawdown as planned would run from
June until September, basically the entire Upper Mississippi
boating season.

DeZellar said it will take a lot of rain – and not simply a
one-time soaking – to create enough flow in the river to save the
project for this year. Without precipitation, the flow could drop
below the necessary minimum within a couple weeks. He said nothing
beyond normal dredging was needed in the pool’s 9-foot navigational
channel; therefore, the pool drawdown is considered “minor.”

The goal of the drawdown in Pool 6 is for a one-foot lowering
near the Trempealeau Lock and Dam, and about a half-foot drop near
the upper end of the pool, by Winona. Mary Stefanski, USFWS Winona
District manager, said ultimately about 500 or more acres typically
under water would be exposed to direct sunlight, promoting the
growth of vegetation.

According to a Corps of Engineers report: “A drawdown of up to
about 500 acres will provide an opportunity for re-establishment of
emergent aquatic plants and consolidation of sediment. Submersed
aquatic plants may receive additional light and become more
abundant in an additional 500 acres.”

Bottom line: habitat is improved for fish, waterfowl, and other
aquatic creatures.

In pools 8 and 5, where an additional 2,000 and 1,000 acres,
respectively, saw summer sunlight for two years in a row, wildlife
has responded and duck hunting has improved, Stefanski said. Also,
“Fishermen love it,” she said. Water clarity also has improved. The
USGS monitors post-drawdown vegetation response.

For the best results, officials recommend pool drawdowns in
consecutive years.

Marina owner Husby said she believes the agencies’ “mission is
wonderful,” but she adds that federal grant money should be
available – perhaps for river dredging – to business owners
affected by drawdowns.

DeZellar said the Corps is not authorized to dredge private
marina sites.

A decision regarding the Pool 6 drawdown is expected early next
month.

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