by CHRIS ROGERS
Homer residents and local officials pushed back last month against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) revised plan for disposing of dredged sand near Winona. Meanwhile, some city of Winona officials expressed optimism about a deal to offload some of the sand near the city’s commercial harbor.
The USACE dredges over 100,000 cubic yards of sand every year from Pool 6, the section of the Mississippi River around Winona, and all that sand has to go somewhere. Hauling it very far from the river is extremely expensive, leading the corps to search for nearby disposal sites and to promote use of the sand in construction projects.
The corps’ latest draft plan calls for continuing to use and possibly expanding sand placement sites at Homer and Latsch Island, encouraging construction companies to use the sand and hauling excess away to nearby quarries. The plan also proposes a new sand offloading site on city-owned land immediately east of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum on Riverview Drive, where sand would be loaded onto trucks and hauled to a nearby Fastenal construction site on Riverview Drive and Bierce Street in need of fill. The sand could also be used to fill a former quarry near the Winona airport, the plan suggests.
A little village of riverfront homes founded in 1855, picturesque Homer is one of the older communities in Minnesota. At the USACE’s June 22 open house, Tanya Wicka held up a cellphone video taken from her yard. The river view was obstructed by the large sand pile, the tranquil scene interrupted by the constant beeping of heavy equipment backup alarms. “That’s all you hear for 12 hours straight,” she said.
The noise of heavy equipment, sandy dust blowing in the wind, the rumble of dump trucks hauling load after load of sand off to nearby quarries or construction sites — Tanya’s husband, Wayne Wicka, said the USACE’s sand disposal had resulted in the “commercialization” of the site and threatened Homer’s identity as a community. “What it’s going to lead to is a loss of community, a loss of enjoyment,” he said. He added, “The Mississippi River is a natural treasure, not the Corps of Engineers’ sand pile.”
Under the corps’ plans, the Homer site is not meant as the final resting place for sand dropped off there. It’s supposed to be a “beneficial reuse site,” meaning that contractors can come pick up sand from the pile for use in construction. However, the constant inflow of sand means that the pile is never empty, and because that inflow far outstrips demand for sand, the corps has had to hire dump trucks to haul the material away for permanent disposal elsewhere.
“We understand they need to dredge the sand, but they need to get it out,” Tanya Wicka said of the Homer site. The corps needs to understand how quickly they can move sand off the site and not load it up with tons of sand it can’t get rid of, she stated.
That sentiment echoes a petition signed by over 110 residents and the official position of Homer Township. In a letter to the corps, the Homer Town Board called for the corps to limit the pile’s size, asking for “no expansion from the existing dredge pile site, no expansion effort on adjacent properties, and a maximum dredge pile height limit of not more than 10-15 feet.”
Instead, the USACE’s latest plan proposes expanding the Homer site by acquiring a neighboring property, which would roughly double the pile’s size. Asked what benefit expanding the site would bring, USACE Dredged Material Manager Paul Machajewski said the extra space would allow the corps to use hydraulic equipment, pumping the sand from the river onto the site as opposed to scooping it with mechanical excavators — a faster, more efficient process. More space would also allow the corps to store more sand at a lower pile height, USACE officials noted. Asked if it would do anything to speed up removal of the sand from the site, Machajewski said, “Not necessarily.”
“We want the right to quiet enjoyment of our property and the right to a quality of life,” Wayne Wicka wrote in an email. “These are quality of life issues all Americans deserve from their government. We’re not getting that right from this government agency, the Corps of Engineers leadership.” Wicka thanked a host of elected officials, from state legislators to the Minnesota congressional delegation, for their help in standing up to the corps, but said more help was needed. In Wabasha, a USACE plan to seize a multi-generation family farm and bury it in sand was defeated with help from Minnesota’s congresspeople. Wicka pointed to Senator Amy Klobuchar’s statement about the farm family in Wabasha: “… They deserve better from their government. Slashing someone’s way of life is not how you treat them.” Homer deserves better, too, Wicka said.
Winona County Board member Marcia Ward and the rest of the board previously opposed the corps’ plans for Homer. She noted that at a recent Board of Equalization meeting — a once a year chance for property owners to appeal their tax bills — the County Board agreed to lower the property valuation on a home immediately next to the Homer sand pile, which is owned by city of Winona Port Authority Commission President Mike Cichanowski. “A big part of his concern is that this sand pile has deteriorated the value of his property and who in their right mind is going to buy it?” she said. Ward continued, “[Corps officials] always say, ‘Oh no, it’s not going to degrade anyone’s property value.’ … Well, it did, and we lowered [the property valuation] rightfully.” She added of the tax valuation appeals, “Personally, I think everyone from Homer should have been in the room, but he’s the only one that applied.”
Cichanowski was part of a group of city officials who met with USACE staff to develop alternatives. The corps’ revised plan reflects some of those efforts, with a proposal for a new site to be developed on wooded city land next to the Marine Art Museum where sand could be loaded directly onto trucks and hauled to nearby construction or disposal sites. “That’s the solution: barge to truck to final destination,” Cichanowski said. “Having some piles for beneficial reuse is great … but it won’t get rid of all their sand.” He said of the proposed expansion at Homer, “They just get a bigger pile, and at some point they have to haul it away.”
Cichanowski was hopeful that the new offloading and disposal sites could result in a win-win. “We want the river open. We want the sand used. We just want to keep peace in the neighborhood,” he stated.
Meanwhile, city of Winona staff and the Port Authority Commission are working on a renewal of the USACE’s lease for an existing sand placement site at Latsch Island, Winona Community Development Director Lucy McMartin said. In its written plan, the USACE states it wants to acquire the one-acre Latsch Island parcel it’s been leasing and another adjacent acre of forest. The plan spells out a timetable for using eminent domain to seize the land if need be. However, Machajewski said that language was only included due to a policy requiring it, and he said the USACE doesn’t actually intend to seize city property or expand the Latsch Island site. “We have not talked about the corps acquiring that property,” Winona City Manager Chad Ubl said. “The city is not interested in selling Latsch Island … and all of the conversations have been about leasing,” he added.