by CHRIS ROGERS
Sand piles at Homer and Latsch Island aren’t going anywhere under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) new draft plan for managing dredge sand around Winona; however, there are some new options for sand disposal. The USACE released the revised plan last Tuesday and is holding a public open house on it this Wednesday evening, June 22.
The plan calls for continuing to use the Homer and Latsch Island storage sites, possibly expanding them, and constructing a new sand-hauling site on city of Winona-owned property just east of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. The revised plan eliminates a previous proposal for taking over a quarter of Latsch Island — an idea that drew pushback from city leaders — but keeps open the possibility of doubling the size of the existing sand storage on the island.
The USACE is charged with maintaining the 9-foot navigational channel of the Mississippi River by dredging millions of cubic yards of sand every year, including as much as 134,000 cubic yards per year in Pool Six, the section of river surrounding Winona. All of that sand has to go somewhere. Due to the weight and sheer volume of the sand, trucking it very far from the river is extremely expensive.
In the past, the USACE could depend on construction companies using up the sand as quickly as the corps dredged it. In recent years, dredging has outstripped the local demand for sand and the USACE had to resort to the more costly option of hauling the sand away to permanent storage sites.
The first draft of the USACE Pool 6 Dredged Material Management Plan was released in 2020. Its plans for the Homer site drew criticism from neighbors and the Winona County Board over sand piles blocking the community’s iconic river views and safety concerns regarding sand trucks on hilly County Road 15. Similarly, the Winona City Council voted unanimously in 2020 to oppose the USACE plan to use a quarter of Latsch Island for sand storage.
The new plan is not vastly different. Dredged sand would be dropped off at the existing Homer and Latsch Island sites, where the USACE would encourage contractors and others to reuse the sand.
Plans for a possible expansion of sand storage at Latsch Island were scaled back. “The big expansion that a lot of the folks — the bird watchers and folks — were excited about, that has been eliminated from the plan,” USACE St. Paul District Dredged Material Manager Paul Machajewski said. “We do have a small, one-acre expansion identified, but we’re not going to pursue it right now.” The current sand storage site on Latsch Island is one acre in size and the draft plan suggests doubling that, but Machajewski said the USACE is not planning on doing so anytime soon. “We’re just going to continue using the one-acre that’s been there since the 70s, but if feelings change or if opportunities arise to use the one-acre expansion … it would be easier to implement in the future [because it’s in the draft plan], if everyone agrees it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Latsch Island is city of Winona property, and the USACE would need to lease or acquire it. The corps’ last lease expired this winter, but Machajewski said he expects to renew it soon. City Council approval is required.
The draft plan calls for buying that Latsch Island property, and even spells out an 18-24-month timeline for seizing the land if need be. However, Machajewski said the corps is not going to do that and that language was only included in the plan because of a policy requiring it. “That’s the way we have to write it in the plan,” he said. “The corps’ policy is that we will acquire [ownership], but we know in this instance and others that the owner is not willing to sell … so we’ll look to continue leases for those properties.”
At Homer, the draft plan calls for expanding the existing storage site to include a property immediately downriver. Asked whether the USACE considered eliminating the Homer site, as some neighbors have requested, Machajewski responded, “We did not look to eliminate the use of the Homer West site, but we did take into account the input we received.” While the sand pile height has reached as much as 60 feet in the past, he continued, “We’re trying to keep it around 30 feet, depending on how much dredging we have to do.” He said the USACE is also working to add a deceleration lane at the entrance of the site and eliminate the need for a train bell at the crossing.
In addition to temporary storage at Homer and Latsch Island, the corps will likely have to haul sand away to permanent storage sites, Machajewski said. In the new plan, the Yaedtke Quarry and another quarry on Highway 43 south of Winona are still earmarked as permanent storage options, but two new, less expensive options closer to the river are now on the table.
The first is a Fastenal property on Riverview Drive — the former Madison Silo property — where Fastenal needs fill material for a planned construction project. The second is the Winona Sand & Gravel quarry near the Winona airport.
The new plan proposes leasing a city property just downstream of the Marine Art Museum and the commercial harbor to create a transfer site where sand would be offloaded from barges directly onto trucks. From there it would be hauled to the Fastenal and Winona Sand & Gravel locations. “With us being able to bring the material through the commercial harbor, that significantly reduces the cost,” Machajewski said.
The Yaedke and Highway 43 quarries are tabbed as “tier three” options in the new plan. Fastenal and Winona Sand & Gravel are “tier two” options, meaning they are preferred due to the lower cost. “I see us looking to implement tier two early and often within the new plan,” Machajewski said, adding that the use of those sites might reduce the amount of sand stored at Latsch Island and Homer.
The USACE will host a public open house on the new draft plan from 6:30-7:30 p.m. on June 22 at the Winona County History Center, 160 Johnson Street in Winona.
In a required environmental assessment of the new plan, USACE officials say the proposals would have no significant impact on the environment or community. The USACE is accepting public comments on that environmental assessment now through July 15 by email at StPaulDMMP@usace.army.mil or by mail at District Engineer, St. Paul District, Corps of Engineers, ATTN: Regional Planning and Environment Division North; 180 Fifth Street East; Suite 700; St. Paul, MN 55101-1638.
The full draft plan and environmental assessment are available at tinyurl.com/255398ew.