by CHRIS ROGERS
Where should the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) put all the sand it dredges? On Latsch Island and a riverside property in Homer, a new draft plan from the corps proposes.
The USACE tentatively plans to make its existing sand stockpile on the west side of Latsch Island nine times bigger. The stockpile would reach from the marina entrance to the interstate bridge, covering nearly the entire southwestern quarter of the island. The island is owned by the city of Winona, and so far, city staff have supported the plan.
In Homer, the corps intends to expand an existing stockpile near a residential area at the intersection of County Road 15 and Highway 61. Some local residents expressed concerns about that plan.
The corps is currently accepting public feedback on its draft Dredged Material Management Plan for Pool Six, the stretch of river between the Prairie Island spillway and the Lock and Dam Six in Trempealeau. The corps will host a public meeting on the plan this Tuesday evening.
The sand has to go somewhere
The USACE spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year keeping the Upper Mississippi River open to barge traffic that is critical to the regional agricultural economy. That takes more than locks and dams. Every year in Pool Six, tens of thousands of cubic yards of sand and silt fill in the main channel. Dredges have to dig out the channel to keep it deep enough for tows, and all that dredged sand has to go somewhere. Trucking that much sand very far is incredibly expensive, so the corps is eager to find places close to the river where the sand can be stored. The trouble is, in many stretches of the river, there are vast amounts of sand to get rid of and only so many places to put it all.
In recent years, the USACE has been drawing up Dredged Material Management Plans — long-term plans for how to handle dredged sand in various pools of the river. For example, in 2017, the corps planned to use eminent domain to seize a third-generation farm near Kellogg and use the land to store seven million cubic yards of sand it will dredge out of Pool Four over the next 40 years. After citizens and local, state, and federal elected officials banded together to fight that plan, the corps scrapped that idea and is currently working with the city of Wabasha on a less controversial alternative.
Last Thursday, the USACE released its draft plan for Pool Six and Winona.
Can reuse of sand keep up with dredging?
The good news about the corps’ plan for Pool Six is that — unlike Pool Four by Wabasha — USACE officials are not looking for hundreds of acres of land to permanently cover with millions of cubic yards of sand. Historically, far less dredging has been necessary in Pool Six, and local people have wanted to use the dredged sand for construction and fill.
Corps officials’ plan for Pool Six is to find sites that could accommodate all of the sand dredged in one year — plus some extra space, as a cushion — and count on local businesses continuing to use up the sand as fast as the corps dredges it. The corps’ Pool Six plan would use 18 acres of land to store up to 168,000 cubic yards of sand.
The plan depends on local governments and businesses using the sand for construction projects and opening up space for the corps to store more. “They’ll take it away, and we’ll fill it back up and go from there,” USACE Dredged Material Manager Paul Machajewski said.
USACE officials acknowledged one risk of this plan is that the reuse of sand might not keep up with dredging. In recent years, the amount of dredging in Pool Six has increased sharply — up from around 20,000 cubic yards per year in the 2000s to around 60,000 cubic yards per year in the 2010s. The city of Winona had been taking some of this sand to stockpile in Riverbend Industrial Park, where it was used to help fill construction sites with swampy soils. However, recently city officials stopped accepting new loads of dredged sand in the industrial park because the demand for the sand was falling.
“We’re hopeful,” Machajewski said when asked if dredging would outpace reuse. He noted that, in the past, reuse has always kept up with dredging. “We have no reason to believe it’s not going to continue as it’s been,” he stated.
“I think the challenge for everybody is going to be getting rid of the material, finding appropriate uses for it,” Winona Public Works Director Keith Nelson said. “There’s a lot of sand around. We don’t mind using it for our projects, and others use it, but I think that’s going to be the challenge.”
Because they are among the least costly places to transport sand to, the USACE plans on using Latsch Island and the Homer site for storage and beneficial reuse. If the corps runs out of space there, the draft plan lays out a plan B option — the Riverbend Industrial Park, also known as Technology Park — where additional sand could be placed for reuse, and plan C options. The plan C sites are Mathy Construction’s quarry on Highway 43 south of Winona and Winona Sand & Gravel’s flooded pit by the Winona airport. These options are far more expensive because of the trucking costs involved, but could provide permanent storage for large amounts of sand, according to the report.
USACE staff considered nearly two dozen other sites for sand placement — from building new islands in the river to using sand as fill to raise the elevation of Prairie Island Campground — but decided against them for now for various reasons.
Locals raised concerns in Homer; city supported Latsch Island site
Early in their planning process, corps planners met with city officials in October 2018, including Nelson and Winona Port Authority Commission Chair Mike Cichanowski. Homer Township leaders and neighboring residents had already told the corps they were not happy about having a huge sand pile in the middle of their otherwise picturesque residential area and raised concerns about safety, noise, and traffic — dump trucks would have to cross a railroad line, according to corps’ notes from the meeting. Cichanowski echoed Homer residents’ concerns during the corps’ meeting with Winona leaders, and, according to the USACE notes from the meeting, Cichanowski and Nelson supported the idea of expanding the Latsch Island storage site.
Cichanowski owns a home directly next to the Homer site. In an interview, he said he is not personally opposed to the sand storage there, but many of the neighbors are. After hearing how much of Latsch Island the USACE is proposing to use, Cichanowski stated, “I’m not saying I would support that.” He added, “A 10-acre site — that’d be big.”
“I think that’s a viable option,” Nelson said in an interview last week of the Lastch Island site.
The city’s comprehensive parks plan calls for the city to expand the recreational amenities at Latsch Island and “enhance and restore native habitat.” The USACE’s plan would fill wetlands at the site and eliminate much of the forest next to beaches used by the public for recreation. On the other hand, Machajewski noted that corps sand piles are sometimes popular beaches. He added that there would be a 50-feet-wide buffer of trees screening the sand pile from all sides, including along the river’s edge.
“I don’t know how it would affect recreation other than, if it created more beach area, people wold like that,” Nelson said when asked whether the corps’ plan for Latsch Island would affect recreation. “I don’t see it as impacting Dick’s Marine or boating or anything like that. I know some people have been using that area as a beach now, and I think making it larger could be positive for beach use.”
City manager Steve Sarvi said he was not familiar enough with the plans to comment at this point, but said that city staff would review the plan.
Plan would fill wetlands
Both the Latsch Island and Homer sites would require filling wetlands. The USACE’s plan describes the potential to mitigate the loss of those wetlands by purchasing credits from a wetland bank, an organization that creates new wetlands elsewhere to make up for wetlands destroyed by development.
In 2017, when USACE officials were explaining why it was necessary to purchase or seize the Kellogg farm, they explained that other nearby sites could not be used because they were wetlands.
“What our policy requires us to do is identify the least costly, environmentally acceptable plan,” USACE St. Paul District Chief of Plan Formulation Craig Evans said at the time. “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.”
When asked about the corps’ plans to use wetlands for sand storage in Pool Six, Machajewski said that there is not an absolute prohibition on filling wetlands. The corps has to balance wetland impacts against cost, among other considerations, he explained. There is a major difference between the Pool Four and Pool Six plans, he noted. In Kellogg, the corps would have had to fill many, many acres of wetlands — an unacceptable amount — where as the proposal for Winona would only affect around five acres of wetlands.
How will USACE secure land?
While the draft Dredged Material Management Plan itself states that the USACE will acquire the sand placement sites, either by buying them or seizing them through eminent domain, if necessary, Machajewski said that is not actually what the corps intends.
“The corps will be initiating the acquisition of the Tier 1 sites in fee,” the USACE plan states, referring to the Latsch Island and Homer sites. “In fee,” means acquiring total ownership of a site, not just an easement or a lease. The plan lays out a timetable for making purchase offers to the owners or seizing the land through eminent domain, if necessary.
The corps does not plan to buy these sites and it always wants to avoid using eminent domain, Machajewski stressed in an interview. The corps does not necessarily want to purchase these sites, it wants to secure the right to use them through a deal such as a lease, he explained. “We’re working with the city [on] a long-term agreement,” Machajewski said of the Latsch site, adding that the corps is having similar conversations with the private citizen who owns part of the proposed Homer site. “The goal is to work with the city to come to an agreement that’s mutually acceptable to both of us,” he added.
After a 30-day public comment period, USACE officials will revise their draft plan and then seek approval from USACE leaders to finalize the plan. Machajewski said the corps hopes to finish it by this summer. After that, implementation of the plan could begin, including securing deals with landowners.
The draft plan may be found online at www.mvp.usace.army.mil/Home/PublicNotices.aspx.
USACE officials will host a public meeting to discuss the draft plan and receive public comments on Tuesday, February 11, from 6-8 p.m. at the Winona Historical Society, 160 Johnson Street, in Winona.
Citizens may send comments via email to Pool6DMMP@usace.army.mil or by mail to the St. Paul District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ATTN: Regional Planning and Environment Division North, 180 Fifth Street East, suite 700, St. Paul, Minn., 55101.