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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Islands grow behind 'seeded' rock barriers in the Upper Mississippi River. © Jeff Janvrin

October 2005

Miles of isles

Restoring island habitat in the broad expanse of the Upper Mississippi River benefits fish, wildlife and local communities.

Ruth Nissen

Islands grow behind 'seeded' rock barriers in the Upper Mississippi River.
© Jeff Janvrin
Old Man River transformed
Plunging into Pool 8
Habitat for the future

No man is an island, but every island could use a guy like Bob Michniak, retired board president of Stoddard. Michniak can't say enough good things about the islands constructed in the Mississippi River near Stoddard by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1999. "The new islands brought back the weeds (aquatic plants) which had nearly disappeared, and fish and weeds go together like bread and butter," said Michniak. Today the area is considered one of the best fisheries in the area. Good catches of perch, crappies and "slab" bluegills in the 9- to 10-inch range can be had summer or winter. "It is a fish factory out there!" said Michniak.

Just eight years ago Stoddard Bay was a wide open expanse of water. Wave and ice action had eroded the islands that once dotted the bay; as the islands disappeared, so did the habitat. "Back then the fishing was something people only reminisced about," said Michniak. There's no need for wistful recollections now. Ongoing habitat projects funded through the federal Environmental Management Program (EMP) and administered through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have helped restore or improve more than 66,600 acres of waterfowl, fish, and wildlife habitat on the Upper Mississippi River. The change has brought many more visitors to Stoddard in every season. "There have to be more than 100 ice fishing shanties out on the bay in winter and cars line up on both sides of the road down to the public boat landing," said Michniak.

EMP was authorized by Congress in 1986 during a time when the Upper Mississippi River ecosystem was in a state of decline. Levee building, increasing amounts of sediment flowing into the river from agriculture and urbanization, and the construction of 29 locks and dams to tame the river for commercial navigation from St. Paul to St. Louis had smothered the river's island habitats.

Old Man River transformed

Prior to 1866 the Upper Mississippi River along Wisconsin was mainly a wild river whose hundreds of islands diverted the current into countless, ever-shifting side channels and backwaters. In spring the river flowed fast and furious, re-scouring channels and forming sandbars in unexpected places, yet in summer it was shallow enough to walk across. This natural river was too dangerous and unreliable for steamboat traffic, so in 1866 a four-foot channel project began. It was the first of several major alterations the river would endure.

When the system of locks and dams was completed in the 1930s the free-flowing river had been transformed into a series of navigation "pools" which inundated vast amounts of river valley, creating extensive backwater lakes, marshy meadows and deep sloughs. Much of this flooded terrain became part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, currently stretching from Wabasha, Minn. to Rock Island, Ill.

At first the pools provided abundant food and shelter for fish and wildlife, but over time the habitat quality deteriorated. The dams maintained high and relatively stable water levels in the lower portion of the pools, which made the remaining islands vulnerable to erosion from waves and river currents. Many of the islands eroded away, and the sand and silt carried by the river gradually filled in the channels, deep holes and backwaters. Wind and waves stirred the bottom, muddying the water and blocking sunlight vital to the aquatic plants, insects and other invertebrates at the base of the Mississippi's food chain, eventually leading to the decline of fish and wildlife populations.

Plunging into Pool 8

The double-pronged Environmental Management Program provided federal funding, a new approach and new tools to improve river habitat. The EMP's Long Term Resource Monitoring Program tracked the river's health, and the Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Projects restored habitat along 1,200 commercially navigable miles of the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers and lower sections of several major tributaries.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with the Corps of Engineers and the states of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin conducts the Long Term Resource Monitoring Program at six field stations, collecting data on water quality, vegetation, and fish. The results help researchers forecast future conditions and provide early warning of potential problems. Additional information is provided by researchers delving into specific questions about the river's ecology. Together, research and monitoring document habitat changes over time and aid in the development and evaluation of management alternatives.

The Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Projects benefit fish and wildlife by restoring lost habitat or protecting existing habitat. In the past 18 years 46 habitat projects have been completed, while dozens of other projects are in various stages of planning, design and construction.

Teams of biologists, managers and engineers from the Corps of Engineers, the five Upper Mississippi River states, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service join with private citizens and organizations to select, design and carry out the habitat improvements. Projects include island building, backwater dredging, stabilizing island and riverbank shorelines, and building control structures to regulate flow and manage water levels.

"The Pool 8 Islands project at Stoddard provides a wealth of fish and wildlife habitat using low islands that will not erode away in a flood," said Jon Hendrickson, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Pool 8 project pioneered the use of "seeding" by placing a strip of rock to trap sediment and "grow" islands. The shallow sand flats created by seeding are used by large numbers of pelicans, shorebirds, and waterfowl.

Rip-rapped stabilized banks are so common on the Mississippi River that they almost seem natural, but the new projects go beyond merely lining the shore with rock. "Current bank stabilization design includes a more aesthetic combination of rock and live plants, usually willows," said Hendrickson. "This technique has been used on over 30 miles of shoreline through the EMP program."

A restored river is more inviting for sport anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers while still serving the needs of commercial navigation. © Ruth Nissen
A restored river is more inviting for sport anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers while still serving the needs of commercial navigation.

© Ruth Nissen

The Stoddard project and its companion project, Pool 8 Islands Phase I, received two major awards for engineering: the Seven Wonders of Engineering for 2002 and the Environmental Award of Excellence from the Chief of Engineers in 2004. Phase I will benefit nearly 3,000 acres located in lower Pool 8 just across the river from Stoddard by reconstructing an island complex similar to what existed in 1954, forming an area protected from wave action and currents to promote aquatic plant beds.

"The project will include islands of differing elevations and widths that will benefit a variety of birds, animals, fish and mussels," said Jim Nissen, manager of the La Crosse District, Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. "The larger islands will have dynamic shorelines that will be allowed to erode, in addition to sandy tips the river can sculpt into attractive sites for hungry shorebirds and nesting turtles, and loafing areas for puddle ducks, swans, geese and other waterfowl," said Nissen. The three phases of island construction in Pool 8 will restore 5,000 acres of the Mississippi River ecosystem, making it one of Wisconsin's largest ecosystem restoration projects.

"The Pool 8 projects have received national and international attention as examples of what can be done to restore habitat on large rivers," said Jeff Janvrin, Wisconsin DNR Mississippi River habitat specialist. "But many more fine habitat rehabilitation and enhancement projects have taken place or are being planned along Wisconsin's western boundary." Other EMP projects recently completed include Sunfish Lake in Pool 11 near Dubuque, and Ambro Slough/Gremore Lake in Pool 10 just north of Prairie du Chien. "Fishing has already improved at the Ambro Slough Project, but visible improvements at Sunfish Lake are still a few years away," said Janvrin. Projects under construction in 2005 include Spring Lake Islands at Buffalo City and Mud Lake Pool 11 near Dubuque.

Habitat for the future

The Environmental Management Projects have come a long way since the notion of creating artificial islands began 20 years ago. The restoration projects are part of an effort led by the Corps of Engineers to set a 50-year vision for navigation improvements and ecosystem restoration on the Upper Mississippi. "If this program is authorized and money appropriated, restoration work on the river could more than quadruple," said Gretchen Benjamin, Wisconsin DNR Mississippi River team leader.

EMP has been recommended for full funding by President Bush for the past two years, and last June, for the first time, full funding was also recommended by the House of Representatives for 2006. "The proposed increases say volumes about balancing commerce with the needs of fish and wildlife," said Don Hultman, refuge manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. "A fully funded EMP will pay huge dividends for wildlife, people and the health of the river."

Ruth Nissen works on the DNR's Mississippi River Team based in La Crosse.