Special Report, Day 2: Trouble at the mouth of Lake Pepin
By Tim Krohn Free Press Staff Writer
The rapidly eroding banks and muddy river water are the obvious signs of problems for those along the Minnesota River.
But it’s near Red Wing that the Minnesota’s problems end up.
“About five years ago the neighborhood people at the mouth of Lake Pepin noticed places you used to be able to jet ski across or take your boat across to Wisconsin — you can’t get there anymore,” said lake resident Mike McKay.
The northern one-third of Lake Pepin is filling in with the Minnesota River’s sediment so quickly that it will disappear by the end of the century. If nothing changes, the entire lake will disappear within 300 years. Experts say the lake is filling with sediment at 10 times the natural rate that occurred before white settlement.
Besides making the lake shallower, the sediment is reducing the light penetrating the water from Fort Snelling to Lake Pepin, choking off growth of aquatic plants.
McKay, who’s lived on the lake for 20 years, said the alarming changes to Lake Pepin prompted area residents, business leaders and environmentalists to form the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance.
McKay, who manages the St. James Hotel, which is owned by the family that owns Red Wing Shoes, does not identify himself as an environmentalist.
“We’re not your typical environmental group. We’ve tried to stay away from that brand. We want to be more inclusive.
“If you own a business on the lake, you’re involved. If you’re involved in water issues for cities or counties, you’re involved. If you’re a sail boat owner, you’re involved,” McKay said of the alliance. “We have a lot of environmentalists and conservationists and all the people who realize their livelihood is based on the lake.”
McKay pored through research on the Minnesota River and upper Mississippi and was amazed at the large scope of scientific research that has been done.
He’s also amazed so little has been accomplished when the research is clear on most of the causes.
“Bank erosion (on the Minnesota) is the big cause, but it’s a direct result of the energy of water coming down so fast.” Water, he said, that is coming from intensely farmed — and artificially drained — watersheds.
“ The only good thing is that virtually all the fields are tiled, so there won’t be more (tiling).” McKay hopes technology will help find ways to retain and slow the flow of water off the farm landscape.
But McKay said state and particularly county regulators need to enforce existing regulations, such as requirements for a 50-foot buffer strip along creeks and streams.
“ There are rules and statutes that require a 50foot setback, but they’re often ignored. If those were consistently followed, that would affect nearly one-third of the sediment.”
McKay said the alliance doesn’t want a hostile relationship with farmers, but says the responsibility of farm drainage in the sediment problem must be acknowledged and addressed — even if there are not quick, sweeping changes.
“We need to find the common ground first and have successes and then build on that.”