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Town hall crowd blasts Corps dredging plan

June 8, 2017 GMT

NELSON, Wis. — More than 150 people crammed into the Nelson Community Hall across the Mississippi River from Wabasha on Tuesday to hear the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discuss the draft of its dredge material management plan.

The town hall meeting was the first of two where the Corps will explain its new 40-year plan and listen to concerns from area residents. Those concerns were universally against the draft plan and its recommendation that the Corps acquire nearly 500 acres for permanent storage of the dredge material plus another 39 acres to serve as on-shore transfer sites in the city of Wabasha.

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“You don’t need our farm, you want it. You want it because it’s convenient for you,” said Nora Drysdale,

The Corps would like to take 298 acres of Drysdale’s farm and fill it with about 15 feet of dredge material over the course of the plan. Drysdale was one of dozens of people who spoke up. None offered support for the draft plan.

The plan is needed to keep open the 9-foot navigation channel for the $2 billion in annual commercial traffic that floats up and down the Mississippi River.

Craig Evans, with the Corps, said the draft was developed with two guiding principles in place: dredge the river at the least cost, and do so in a way that is environmentally acceptable. For the environmental part, that means avoiding wetlands and adhering to the Clean Water Act. “That’s what our regulations say we have to do,” he said.

If someone approaches the Corps with a plan that includes filling a wetland, Evans said, the first question is whether they have another alternative. If yes, they’d receive no permit. “The Clean Water Act is the biggest driver on the environmental side,” Evans said.

As for cost, Evans said, dredging the river and hauling the material are the biggest costs. Acquiring the real estate for the plan will amount to about 2 percent of the overall costs.

According to the Corps, most of the 270,000 cubic yards that is dredged annually in Lower Pool 4 from the foot of Lake Pepin to Lock & Dam No. 4 is silt that comes off the Chippewa River. While shoreline erosion is part of the problem, the bigger issue is the Chippewa River is steeper than the Mississippi River, and the silt and sand comes off the riverbed. “She’s doing what a river does,” said Paul Machajewski, channel maintenance coordinator. “The majority of this is her digging herself deeper.”

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Evans said the plan would include on-shore loading at two sites in Wabasha and one site in Alma for a total of about 90 days a year. Neighbors of one of those sites, the Southside Fitzgerald site along River Drive in Wabasha, told the Corps their plan was both unworkable and would ruin the value and enjoyment of their properties.

Karla Schedlbauer’s home abuts the 165-acre site where silt and sand would be stored, dried and loaded onto as many as 20 trucks an hour to be hauled to a permanent storage, likely the Drysdale’s farm. Schedlbauer comwdplained about the heavy-handedness of the Corps in dealing with landowners. “You’re only here tonight because we forced you to be here tonight,” she said, adding that the constant sorties of trucks would “destroy Wabasha.”

“We’ve heard a lot about your costs, your concerns, nothing about public safety,” she said. “The site you’re proposing is 100 feet from my back door. You’d ruin my peace.”

Evans explained that the plan must follow the cost and environmental mandates set by the Corps, and while he understands some parts of the plan -- particularly the Corps acquiring property from people not interested in selling -- can be unpopular, it is necessary for the longterm maintenance of the shipping channel.

“It’s beautiful farmland, and we don’t take that lightly,” Evans said, referring to the Drysdale’s farm. However, other sites would add significantly to the costs either through trucking or wetland impact, he argued. “This site poses the least risk of running into wetlands of any other.”

“I know you’re sticking to your mandates, but your mandates have to change,” Schedlbauer said.

Several people suggested finding ways to reduce the amount of silt coming off the Chippewa River by using riprap and wing dams. While others recommended the Corps tour gravel and sand pits around the region that could hold the volume of sand -- more than 10 million cubic yards -- over the plan’s 40-year lifespan.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, who represents Minnesota House District 21B where the Drysdale farm resides, echoed Evans’ compliment of the farm. “It’s was mentioned that’s a nice piece of farmland,” Drazkowski said. “It could be argued it’s the best parcel of farmland in Wabasha County.”

Drazkowski, a former county ag agent, questioned the Corps’ diligence in developing the plan. For example, Evans had previously noted the Corps used Google Earth to find wetlands in the region. “That’s not how you do wetland evaluations,” the Minnesota lawmaker said. “It seems we should exhaust all options on public owned land rather than take a fourth-generation farm. We’re talking about a family and their livelihood.”

Extending the study period for the plan to do a more thorough job, he said, seemed prudent.

The Corps will hold another town hall meeting at 7 p.m., June 15 at Wabasha-Kellogg High School. Public comments on the draft dredge material management plan are being accepted by the Corps of Engineers through June 23.

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