Will Dilg Chapter highlights need for a grassroots campaign to restore the Upper Mississippi River

  • Posted by Dawn Merritt

    By Olivia Dorothy, IWLA Upper Mississippi River Regional Conservation Coordinator

    After just one week on staff at the Izaak Walton League, I had the pleasure of visiting the League’s Will Dilg Chapter in Winona, Minnesota, on Wednesday. We started the day with a trip to the Will Dilg memorial on the banks of the Upper Mississippi. There we met chapter member (and 2011 convention speaker) Barry Drazkowski. Barry showed us his geospatial work on environmental monitoring and took us on a tour of the picturesque Upper Mississippi River Refuge.

    The Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge was established in 1924 – largely through the leadership of the Izaak Walton League and its first national president, Will Dilg – and runs 261 miles from Wabasha, Minnesota, to my home in the Quad Cities. At the refuge, Jeff Janvrin (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) and Sharonne Baylor (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) spoke with us about the Spring Lake Islands Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Project.

    Spring Lake had been completely filled with silt, making it unsuitable as fish and wildlife habitat. The restoration project, funded through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, recreated several islands in the lake’s backwater to reduce wave action that caused turbid water and encourage the re-growth of native vegetation.

    From Spring Lake, we visited another backwater area popular among tundra swans migrating from the Arctic to New England. Unfortunately, we did not see any swans at the time of our stop. But we used the opportunity to discuss recent changes to the area. Like Spring Lake, this backwater is slowly being choked with sediment. Unlike Spring Lake, there are currently no plans to restore it.

    Sedimentation is common in the backwater lakes along the Upper Mississippi River. Before the construction of a series of 29 locks and dams along this portion of the river, the Mississippi River fluctuated seasonally, flooding the backwater lakes in spring, providing spawning grounds for fish. Flows would diminish in the heat of the summer, and the lakes would become disconnected from the mainstem, some drying up into marsh or wet grassland. The locks and dams not only disrupt the natural water fluctuations, but they also trap sediment. Modern farming practices leave soil vulnerable to erosion during heavy rains. That sediment washes into the river and builds up behind the locks and dams and in the backwater lakes. When this happens, the lakes loose depth variety that is essential to aquatic life and slowly become shallower, until the lake is nothing but a mudflat.

    There is currently a jigsaw puzzle of state and federal programs in place to revitalize the Upper Mississippi River system. The biggest threat to wildlife habitat in the river is sedimentation, and two large federal programs work to reduce sediment in the river: The Farm Bill’s Conservation Title and the Corps of Engineers’ Environmental Management Program. Many components of the Conservation Title aim to keep soil on that land. The Environmental Management Program restores habitat in the Mississippi Riverchannel and back waters through construction projects that reduce erosion and remove sediment from the river and use the dredged soil to create additional habitat such as islands. Both of these programs are under-funded and susceptible to cuts by Congress unless people demand more resources for these programs.

    After the tour, we attended the Will Dilg Chapter meeting and dinner at the Monarch Public House in Fountain City.  We met several chapter members and friends from St. Mary’s University in Winona.  Everyone was excited to be involved in the restoration and protection of the Upper Mississippi River.

    The Will Dilg chapter – in tradition of our organization’s first president – really drove the message home: We need to reinvigorate the people to restore America’s great river.

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