In the Spotlight

News & Features
Balancing Ecology and Commerce on the Mississippi
September 15, 1998
By Art Hughes
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
One of a Four-Part Mainstreet Radio Series:
Bemidji's River Renaissance | Protecting the Health of the Mississippi
Riverfront Recreation

In this conclusion to the Mississippi River series, we travel downstream from the Twin Cities to the southeastern part of Minnesota where the river is vigorously controlled. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - not nature - is the primary controlling force for the Mississippi River between St. Paul and the Gulf of Mexico. The Corps first constructed a series of rock structures, then larger, more efficient dams and locks - all to keep barges moving unobstructed. For a century and a half, the river's flow has been directly manipulated by human hands. Now, as environmental consequences become more and more obvious, agencies and individuals are struggling to find ways to strike a balance between commerce and ecology.

IN THE MUDDY, MEANDERING SLOUGHS known as the backwaters of the Mississippi River, Calvin Fremling steers his boat around submerged stumps and sandbars that go unseen to most novice navigators. The former Winona State University biology professor and self-proclaimed river-rat has been plying these waters for much of his 68 years. His dual expertise in biology and recreational hunting and fishing merge as he talks about the 250 or more species of fish below his aluminum hull.

Fremling: When you fish here you never know what you're going to catch ... if you're fishing with nightcrawlers. I guess my buddy and I feel par for the course at about eight species a day. Your catch might include walleye, sauger, bluegill, crappie. You never really know. It's a lot of fun for that reason.
It's clear the Mississippi backwaters are Fremling's haven. He stops to admire a two-acre patch of water lotus in full bloom - pale yellow flowers stretch nine inches across, and round leaves seem to levitate above the waves. He marvels at a small flock of teal and wood ducks that most visitors here would barely notice. But Fremling says this haven is slipping away.
Fremling: These channels that we're in are getting wider and wider and wider. And most of the islands are getting smaller. And the habitat is getting more uniform and wave-swept. So it becomes a shallow, muddy, monotonous habitat. We're losing its diversity.
The diversity of plantlife in the river is disappearing. Marshes rich with bird food such as wild celery, arrowhead, and bull rush are being replaced with comparatively unproductive open water. Bill Bruins is a member of Minnesota's advisory board of the National Audubon Society. He's watched food and habitat on the river diminish over the years, pushing wildlife into smaller and smaller pools. Recently, the Audubon Society launched a long-term campaign to preserve and restore habitat by lobbying Congress for funds and educating river users. Bruins says on the continuum of commerce and ecology, the river's health needs more consideration.
Bruins: The river's a big economic web. There's been a lot of emphasis on the transportation or commercial benefits. You tend to forget the environmental benefits. There are a lot of fishermen who use the river; there are hunters who use the river; there are a lot of people like me - birders, recreationalists - who use the river.
Sediment from tributaries once pushed its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Now it collects in the slow-moving and predictable current controlled for barges by the Army Corps of Engineers at locks and dams from Red Wing on downstream. Over the years the Corps, along with agencies like the State Department of Natural Resources have tried to off-set the adverse environmental effects of barge traffic. Crews have built new islands and fortified others to break up waves and improve water clarity. Now the DNR is working on a plan that mimics the ups and downs of a natural river. DNR fisheries specialist Tim Schlagenhaft says the so-called draw-down offers the most promise yet for rejuvenating habitat.
Schlagenhaft: A draw-down you can do on a large scale. A lot of the projects we've done in the past - building islands, dredging - have been successful on a small scale. But they're not reversing large trends we're seeing. A draw-down has potential to affect lots and lots of acreages and benefit that.
The plan is controversial. Lowering the water during the peak boating season would temporarily strand hundreds of boats at marinas and private docks. It would also make some channels and favorite fishing holes inaccessible. But many sports enthusiasts support it because it has the potential to boost fish and waterfowl populations. The draw-downs would expose parts of the river bottom to air and light which many water plants need to germinate. Officials hope to test the draw-down idea in two years.

Despite all the efforts, biologist Calvin Fremling says the river's steady decline is inevitable. He says barge traffic is too important for local economies to consider doing away with the shipping channel. The consequence, he says, is that the river is aging unnaturally fast.

Fremling: It seems fatalistic, I guess. But it is. It's sad to me. I guess that's why I'm out here as much as I am. I like to enjoy it while I can. My buddies and I feel so much that we're lucky to have experienced the river when we have. It is so nice. And maybe we've seen it in the best of all times.
Fremling and others worry the day will come - in 50, 30, or even 20 years - when many basic and important species of plants and animals can't keep up their numbers, and river rats will no longer have a reason to return to the backwaters of the Mississippi.