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Our View: Public needs to dig into Corps dredging issue

June 8, 2017 GMT

The Army Corps of Engineers has a problem that’s 10.7 million cubic yards in size. It has a public relations challenge to match.

Last month, the Corps released a draft plan for managing all the sand and sediment it dredges from the Mississippi River to keep the commercial navigation channel open. The roughly 150-page report immediately made waves in the Wabasha-Kellogg area because it calls for acquiring some private property on which to deposit that sand, and it would have other visual and industrial impacts along the riverfront.

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The draft plan identifies five permanent sites on both sides of the river, and four on-shore transfer sites with river access that would be used to shuffle the sand around.

Among the landowners affected is Willard Drysdale, whose third-generation farm north of Kellogg is on the list of proposed sites for acquisition. The Corps proposes to buy about 298 acres from Drysdale, more than half of what’s needed for the project overall, for one of the permanent placement sites.

Drysdale’s not interested in seeing his cropland buried in sand, nor is his daughter Chelsey, who hopes to one day be the fourth-generation Drysdale to farm the land. “I told the fella (from the Corps) it’s not for sale,” Willard Drysdale told the Post Bulletin.

The Corps says it identified some of the privately owned sites because appropriate public land isn’t available. Though some say the dredged material should be dumped in wetlands and backwaters in that area, the Corps appropriately says there are laws and environmental reasons that complicate that.

Others say the material should be dumped back in the river outside the navigation channel, but that also has big impacts on wildlife and the environment -- and the sand probably winds up back in the channel anyway.

Those may not be good options, but neither is eminent domain. If public land isn’t available for the material, the Corps should keep looking for private parties willing to sell.

There’s no doubt the channel needs to be dredged and maintained for commercial navigation. The Big River isn’t just for fishing, boating and eagle-watching. It’s a vital transportation channel for the region, as it has been for millennia. More than 8 million tons of commodities worth about $220 million were shipped through Lock and Dam 4 at Alma, Wis., in 2015.

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Though you may not see that many tows and barges when you’re out fishing or having dinner at Nosh in Lake City, it’s a working river. Doing nothing is not an option. Current dredge material deposit areas, including islands created for that purpose in the river, will be full in less than 10 years. So that sand is coming ashore. It’s just a matter of where and how.

Though it’s considered a draft plan, the public comment period is already well along. Last night, one of two public meetings was held in Nelson, Wis., just across the river from Wabasha, and about 150 people turned out. On June 15, the other meeting will be held at Wabasha-Kellogg High School. The Corps is taking comments by mail through June 23.

The agency is listening. Now’s the time for Wabasha-Kellogg area residents to share their concerns and as the Corps’ Craig Evans told the Post Bulletin Tuesday, to “bring their ideas.”

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