A View from Hidden Harbor

A house boat at night near Hidden Harbor Marina

Most people still call it Willie’s, though there are a few that remember even further back when it was called Bell’s. Now known as Hidden Harbor Marina, this place is the quintessential local hangout. Tucked away in St. Paul Park, far from the highway, you would never stumble upon Hidden Harbor by accident. Folks who live around town, however, have been coming here for years to grab a drink and a bite to eat or get out on the river. I’m sitting upstairs in the event center where ten years ago I was dancing my bootie off at a co-workers wedding. Tonight, I’m munching on a pulled pork sandwich and listening to a special presentation of the State of the River Report given by Lark Weller from the National Park Service and Trevor Russell of Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR).The Park Service and FMR collaborated on the State of the River Report as a way to take information from hundreds of scientific studies and present it in a manner that is easy to understand and accessible for everyday people. Tonight, roughly 35 people from Newport, St. Paul Park, Cottage Grove and Grey Cloud, many of whom have been fishing and boating on the Mississippi all their lives,  are gathered at Hidden Harbor to learn how their river is doing. When Weller and Russell begin talking about Asian carp, people start leaning forward in their seats. Just a few weeks ago, a 47-pound bighead carp was caught down in Lake Pepin, and even if the efforts of an ad-hoc Asian carp task force succeed at shutting down or limiting lock usage at the St. Anthony Falls and Ford Dams, there will be nothing to prevent the fish from swimming up river as far as Pool 2.

“Is it true that Asian carp eat zebra mussels?” asks Denny Hanna, a manager with the South Washington Watershed District, an entity charged locally with managing the water flowing off the land to prevent flooding and pollution. “Perhaps,” answers Russell, “but we don’t want to replace one problem with another.” “What about closing the dam at Keokuk, Iowa?” asks another man in the group. Both Russell and Weller agree that that is unlikely to happen because of the impact it would have on the barge industry, but they are quick to note that decision-makers down in Iowa and Illinois are more likely to consider other options such as bubble and electric fish barriers if they hear a demand from people in Minnesota.

There are a few people here tonight from Friends of Pool 2, a citizen group that advocates for the protection and enhancement of the Mississippi River between the Ford Dam and Hastings. As organization president Kevin ChapdeLaine notes, “Lake Pepin is an incredible test site for what is happening to the river, but, anything that happens to Lake Pepin, happens to Pool 2 first.” Sedimentation is a prime example. Currently, sediment, which includes tiny particles of soil and organic matter, is being washed into the Mississippi and traveling downriver. As a result, Lake Pepin is filling in at ten times its natural rate and the entire portion of the Mississippi south of its confluence with the Minnesota River is impaired. In addition to obliterating fish spawning sites, smothering aquatic plants and clogging the gills of fish and tadpoles, excess sediment is causing economic impacts in Pool 2, where the Army Corps of Engineers is struggling to maintain a shipping channel for commercial traffic.

About 75% of the sediment in the Mississippi River comes from the Minnesota River basin where farm fields, as well as sloughing bluffs and river banks, all contribute massive quantities of soil. Due to more drain tiles in agricultural areas, more pavement in developed areas, and fewer wetlands all around, rain and melting snow flood ditches, pipes and streams that eventually lead to the big river. Not only is more sediment reaching the river from a wider area of the landscape, but also the increased river flow is chiseling away at banks and bluffs, causing them to erode and dump even more sediment into the water.

Though metro-area urban runoff contributes only 6% of the total sediment to the Mississippi River, what we do on the land here also impacts our local lakes, streams and groundwater resources. That’s why seemingly small actions like building raingardens and picking up pet waste really make a difference. It’s also important to have citizen groups like Friends of Pool 2 and FMR, as well as governmental entities like the National Park Service and the South Washington Watershed District, that connect people with information about their water resources and what they can do to keep water clean. “When people care about the river, they protect the river,” says Weller at the end of the presentation. The group nods in agreement and later, as we walk outside, we catch a glimpse of the Mississippi from our own hidden harbor, black waters sparkling under a starry winter’s night.