by CHRIS ROGERS
April 10 is the last chance for citizens and governments to comment on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) plan to place tens of thousands of cubic yards of sand on 10 acres of public land at Latsch Island and expand a large sand pile at a residential neighborhood in Homer. As the deadline approaches, the city of Winona Planning Commission urged the Winona City Council to formally oppose the plan. The issue will be on the City Council’s April 6 agenda, though it is unclear whether the council will oppose the plan.
The USACE needs somewhere to put the mountains of sand it dredges from the Mississippi River every year to keep the main channel open to barges and bass boats alike. In pool six of the Mississippi River— Prairie Island to Trempealeau — the corps wants to find room for 168,000 cubic yards of sand every year. This spring, the USACE released a draft dredged material management plan proposing to expand two existing sand placement sites: a one-acre site at Latsch Island leased from the city of Winona, and a four-acre site at Homer the corps owns. The USACE wants to expand the sand placement site at Latsch Island all the way from the marina entrance to the interstate bridge landing — 10 acres in all, a 10-fold expansion of the current site. At Homer, the corps wants to use a three-acre neighboring property, not quite doubling the size of the current site. At both locations, the corps’ hope is that contractors will use the sand for construction or other purposes, gradually hauling some away to make room for next year’s dredging.
Numerous citizens have spoken out against both locations, with many Homer residents decrying the plan for ruining the river views that define their community and several Winonans saying the Latsch Island site would hurt an asset the city has been trying to make part of its overall economic strategy: the natural beauty of the downtown riverfront.
Some city leaders are also opposed, including City Council member Paul Schollmeier and Mayor Mark Peterson, but the sentiment is not universal. City Council member Michelle Alexander said she would likely support the plan, and City Council member Eileen Moeller said she was leaning in that direction.
Winona officials met privately with USACE leaders earlier last month to discuss possible alternatives, but there are no easy solutions. Pool six is confined by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Trempleau National Wildlife Refuge on one side and the city of Winona on another. The city and local contractors have historically used dredged sand for construction, but the city already has more sand than it can give away.
“The way I look at it, there aren’t a lot of good options,” Schollmeier said. “There are just options that we may have to go with, but … at least I don’t see the city going with anything at Latsch Island, and I’m not convinced that we’re going to take anymore at the East End [business] park either. It’s a hard nut to crack.”
City and corps officials have largely declined to comment on what specific alternative sites they discussed during their private meeting last month.
Asked whether any of those alternatives were, in his opinion, promising, USACE St. Paul District Dredged Material Manager Paul Machajewski responded, “I’ve not seen enough to know one way or another.” He added, “I’m sorry I’m being kind of vague, but until we really look at the details of sites they’re kicking around, it’s hard to say how encouraging it’ll be for utilization of those sites because it all comes down to cost and [environmental] impacts from the sites they are selecting.”
After the comment period for the draft plan closes on April 10, the USACE will evaluate the comments it received, including any suggested alternative sites, and consider making changes to its plan, Machajewski explained.
“I’m sure changes will likely be made to the plan based on the comment period and the comments we’ve received,” Machajewski said. What sort of changes? “Hopefully additional sites,” he responded. “We’ll see if there are additional sites we can utilize in the plan, if there are other sites that have come forward that meet the needs of the planning effort.”
The USACE’s goal is to have a final plan in place and start implementing it — including acquiring the rights to properties — this summer. Although corps leaders have said their goal is to plan ahead for dredged material management, not come up with last-minute solutions, Machajewski acknowledged there is a chance the corps could run out of sand storage this year. It is an urgent issue for the corps.
The Latsch Island placement site goes against the city’s comprehensive plan — both the goals for Latsch Island and the downtown riverfront, Planning Commission Chair Brian Buelow said last month. “There’s this picture of beautiful Winona. Of course, off to the side there would be a 45-foot-high sand pile if the corps has its way,” he stated. Buelow also raised concerns about the sand pile worsening flooding, a risk the corps also touched on in its plan. “The other thing is, it’s a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” Buelow said of the corps’ need for sand storage. “We have a long-term detriment to the city of Winona for a short-term fix to a problem.”
The Planning Commission voted unanimously to send a letter to the City Council saying the plan for sand placement at Latsch Island was “in direct conflict” with the city’s comprehensive plan and asking the City Council to oppose it.
However, even opponents of the Latsch Island site on the City Council are not sure the City Council needs to make a formal comment against the site or the USACE plan.
Asked whether he thought the City Council should formally oppose the draft plan, Schollmeier said, “The corps can’t do anything on our property unless we allow them to … If you’re asking, should the city say, ‘We’re not going to allow them to put it on Latsch Island,’ I don’t know that we have to say that.” He explained, “I think that, even though we haven’t put it on a stone tablet for them, that it’s pretty clear we don’t want it on Latsch Island.”
After initial discussing plans to formally oppose the Homer site, the Winona County Board voted last month to approve a more softly worded resolution asking the corps to explore other options. County Board members Marcia Ward and Chris Meyer both noted that the county doesn’t have any authority over the corps; it can only ask the USACE to be considerate.
Citizens may submit comments to the USACE on its dredged material management plan by emailing Pool6DMMP@usace.army.mil or by sending a letter to St. Paul District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, attention: Regional Planning and Environment Division North, 180 Fifth Street East, suite 700, St. Paul, Minn., 55101.
Contact information for City Council members is available at www.cityofwinona.com.