Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Army engineers use floating pipelines to move sand from dredges to island transfer sites. Later, crews haul the sand to land-based permanent storage sites. The storage sites near Wabasha and Alma are filling up, and Army officials expect they will need hundreds of acres in new storage sites over the next 40 years.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Over the next 40 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) plans to dredge 10.7 million cubic yards of sand out of pool 4 of the Mississippi River (Lake Pepin to Alma) and put most of that sand on Willard Drysdale’s farm. Right now, young corn plants are spreading their leaves over nearly 300 acres of irrigated cropland on the rural Kellogg farm. The corps’ plan would bury the fields under 15 feet of dredge sand. Together with smaller sites near Buffalo City; Nelson, Wis.; and Wabasha, the USACE’s plan would consume 489 acres of farmland. Drysdale does not want to sell his third- soon to be fourth-generation family farm, but if the corps does not change its plans and cannot reach a purchase agreement, USACE officials said they may use eminent domain to seize it.
It is the Army Corps’ job to maintain the nine-feet-deep, three-hundred-feet-wide navigational channel that allows barges to chug up and down the Mississippi. Commodities valued at nearly $220 million flowed through pool 4 in 2015, according to the corps, but pool 4 faces a unique challenge: the Chippewa River.
From St. Paul to Guttenberg, Iowa, around half of all sand and silt the Army dredges out of the Upper Mississippi River every year comes from pool 4, where loads of sandy sediment rushing down Chippewa River hit the slow-moving Mississippi. The Chippewa dumps that sand into the Mississippi, creating the sprawling Nelson-Trevino Bottoms and filling up the navigational channel. The corps constantly digs this sand up to keep the shipping lane open. Of the quarter million cubic yards of sand the corps dredges out of pool 4 each year on average, 106,000 cubic yards come from one half-mile-long stretch where the navigation channel passes by the mouth of the Chippewa.
However, the corps is running out of places to put all the sand it digs up. The corps tries to find uses for its dredge sand, such as fill for construction projects, but because pool 4 produces sand far faster than anyone can use it, USACE crews simply pile it up. In the past, the corps has often used old quarries as storage sites, but those and the other current sites are getting full, according to USACE officials. Corps staff studied their options and last month released a proposed plan for new sites to store dredge sand for the next 40 years.
A 78-acre field north of Nelson, 94 acres of cropland just outside Buffalo City, a 12-acre quarry already used for dredge sand storage, and a few other sites near Wabasha are all on the USACE’s proposed list of property to acquire, but Drysdale’s farm is the center point of the corps’ proposed plan. Sixty-four percent of the projected 10.7 million cubic yards of sand would be trucked there.
Drysdale got a letter in the mail on May 15 notifying him of the corps’ plans for the land his grandfather bought in 1939. Since then, Drysdale has had little time to focus on his Angus cattle breeding operation. In between calls to Congress people and from reporters, he planned for the corps’ next public meeting with family friend Bill Hager. His daughter, Chelsea Drysdale, wants to take over the farm. Last week, she ran off to rake hay before a storm. She said she hardly slept after a tense public meeting in Nelson the night before.
Instead of destroying prime agricultural land with rich soil, flat fields, and irrigation wells, the corps should truck its dredge sand to marginal land further away, Willard Drysdale argued. “It’s so shocking because you just look at this land. How could anybody think of taking this for a storage area?” Hager asked, waving his arm toward the green fields.
The corps chose the proposed sites because they were the least expensive options that would not require filling wetlands. “Our goal, what our policy requires us to do is identify the least costly, environmentally acceptable plan,” said USACE St. Paul District Chief of Plan Formulation Craig Evans. “Least costly is one of our biggest hurdles. Environmentally acceptable has many aspects, but the most firm one is the Clean Water Act, which demands that we avoid impacting wetlands if we have any alternatives.”
Millions of cubic yards of sand is very expensive to haul, and according to corps officials, the cost of trucking dwarfs the price of land for storage sites. As far as the corps is concerned, land values matter far less than how close land is to the dredging sites. The Wabasha County Assessor’s Office values the Drysdale farm at around $1.65 million. According to its plan, the USACE expects to spend $131 million on acquiring the farm and hauling 7.1 million cubic yards of sand to it.
That works out to a cost of $18.50 per cubic yard placed on the Drysdale farm, making it one of the most affordable, big sites for the corps. USACE planners decided against another site outside Buffalo City that would only cost $18 per cubic yard, but was located right next to several rural homes and only had room for 720,000 cubic yards. The corps rejected the idea of placing dredge sand at a Lake City gravel pit because the $22 per cubic yard placement cost was too high.
“Why not haul two miles more if it gets you to a less desirable piece of land?” Willard Drysdale asked. Evans said that would cost the federal government millions.
In addition to avoiding wetlands, the project’s Environmental Assessment required the corps to consider how the proposed storage sites would affect the local community and economy. Willard Drysdale and Hager argued that destroying 300 acres of prime farmland would be a big blow to the local economy and community. In their plan, USACE planners acknowledged that converting farmland “to unusable, barren sand” would have an effect on agriculture, but in a matrix that scored the proposed project’s environmental impacts, they graded the project as having “no effect” on community cohesion and sense of unity, on community growth and development, on business and home relocations, on existing and potential land use, on soil resources, property values, tax revenue, employment, and farmland and food supply. It also gave the plan a “no effect” score on a category titled “controversy.” The corps is in charge of approving its own environmental review for the project.
Evans said the corps did not focus too much on the socioeconomic effects of placing sand on farmland. “We did not look into that a lot because all of the sites we were comparing would have the same impacts … That was not a factor that was going to help us discriminate between the sites … It came down to which farmland we are going to use. It doesn’t matter which farmland we pick, it’s going to be a similar impact.”
“Taking this acreage out of production is senseless,” Hager said. “Here we have about 300 acres of corn that won’t be going down that nine-foot channel,” he added.
Asked about the matrix’s “no effect” score for farmland, Evans said, “Five-hundred acres of farmland, from a national perspective, is not a significant threat to the food supply.”
Evans said that, if the corps receives new information, it might still change its plans. The district commander is responsible for approving the final plan. “As it sits right now, we think [the Drysdales’] property is the least costly, environmentally acceptable location. And it is a very hard decision, and we don’t expect that they will like it or be happy with it,” Evans stated.
Willard Drysdale urged citizens to contact their U.S. Representatives and Senators. He pointed, too, to the fact that the plan identifies hundreds of acres of neighboring farmland as potentially desirable for future dredge sand placement. “They used to talk when I was in high school that there would be no place to put this sand,” he said. “I think in 200 years, they are going to have a small percentage of West Central Wisconsin piled up on the Mississippi.”
The USACE will host a second public meeting on the dredge material management plan on Thursday, June 15, at 7 p.m. at the Wabasha-Kellogg High School. The USACE extended a public comment period on the plan until June 23. Comments may be emailed to Robert.K.Edstrom@usace.army.mil. More information, including the full text of the plan and maps of the proposed and considered sites, is available at www.mvp.usace.army.mil.