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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 4 — If You Build It, They Will Return

Restoration in the Upper Mississippi

Gretchen Benjamin, Assistant Director with The Nature Conservancy's Upper Mississippi River program, talks about the restoration activities taking place with partners in the Upper Mississippi River and how nature is benefitting.


Story Highlights
  • Island rebuilding, deep-water habitat restoration, island stabilization, and side channel restoration are funded by the federal Environmental Management Program (EMP), which is administered by the Army Corps of Engineers.
  • When it's completed in 2012, the six-year Phase III Pool 8 island building project will add 3,000 acres to 2,400 acres created in the first two phases.
  • Twenty four islands will have been constructed once all five phases are finished.
  • The Nature Conservancy helps ensure that federal funds for efforts like the Pool 8 island rebuilding project are available annually through the Environmental Management Program (EMP).

By Tom Eisenhart

This morning, I'm standing on a crowded pontoon boat gliding out onto the waters of Pool 8 of the Mississippi River near Stoddard, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, there's a fairly thick fog hovering over the river. It's not exactly ideal conditions to view islands being rebuilt in Pool 8.

This is Phase III of a five phase effort to rebuild Pool 8 islands that began in 1989. The goal: help bring back the plants, birds, fish and other wildlife that had virtually vanished from this stretch of the river as the islands all but disappeared by the early 1980s.

The construction of the lock and dam system on the Mississippi in the 1930s created wide open stretches of water, called 'pools,' upstream of the structures. Over time, islands in the pools eroded away, increasing the uninterrupted distance wind could travel and stirring up sediment in backwater areas. Aquatic vegetation suffered, negatively affecting waterfowl, fish and other wildlife.

Our boat is crowded this morning with people sharing the easy banter of long-time colleagues. They are partners in this effort, staff representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and The Nature Conservancy. Their camaraderie stems from having worked together on habitat restoration and monitoring efforts in Pool 8 and other stretches of the Upper Mississippi River.

The island rebuilding is one effort aimed squarely at restoring natural habitat in Pool 8 so that it that will once again flourish with birds, fish, turtles and other creatures.

Constructing Nature's Way

As we motor through this area called Raft Channel, I get a glimpse of islands in various states of construction. Hulking construction equipment sits on one island that's evidently just being built; basically, it's a bed of sand placed atop the base of one of the original islands. Another has a thick layer of silt placed over it, material that the Corps has dredged from elsewhere on the river.

Other islands have abundant low vegetation, with log and rock structures interspersed along the sands and mud flats on their shores. As construction progresses, oak, cottonwood and hackberry trees will be planted on the new islands.

In the channels between the islands, there are areas thick with arrowhead, cattail and even wild rice. The reemergence of aquatic vegetation in Pool 8 since the water draw downs in the summers of 2001 and 2002 has been a tremendous success, according to Gretchen Benjamin, Assistant Director of the Conservancy's Upper Mississippi River Program. Gretchen has convened today's island tour.

Those draw downs exposed two thousand acres of river bottom, resulting in the re-emergence of aquatic plants. Together with the habitat restoration projects and good water clarity, the aquatic vegetation continues to be very healthy in Pool 8, particularly in sheltered backwater areas, as documented by ongoing monitoring by the USGS.

Vegetation protected behind natural and built islands provides places for fish and other aquatic creatures to feed, hide and mate. Waterfowl and other migratory birds benefit too, as they feast and rest amongst the vegetation.

Following the Wildlife

The return of birds and other wildlife has led to the return of people, too. Ken Visger, a long-time area resident and volunteer with the USFWS has fond memories of hunting among the islands of Pool 8 in the 1950s, before the area was closed to hunting. "There were thousands of birds — the noise was constant," he remembers.

As restoration has progressed, birders and photographers now visit the area in droves to see throngs of birds on their annual migrations.

Reflecting on nature's resurgence due to habitat restoration projects in Pool 8, Ken says "I thought (the wildlife) would be here forever. But I came to my senses and realized that if you don't take care of nature, it will disappear."

Speaking of disappearing, the fog has begun to burn off more quickly as we end our tour. Still, it hasn't been ideal for island viewing, certainly not as inspiring as the aerial views of these islands captured by local landscape photographer Bob Hurt. See a slideshow of Bob's amazing photos.

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