A Sampling of River News
App for Frog Counters
St. Paul — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has launched a new online mapping application that allows volunteers to sign up to be surveyors for the Minnesota Frog and Toad Survey, an important effort to monitor these amphibians. Frogs and toads are one of the best indicators of the health of wetlands. The app provides a wealth of information, including results from past years, descriptions of frogs and toads, and recordings of frog calls.
Cormorant Slaughter Illegal
Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) should not have allowed tens of thousands of migratory aquatic birds to be shot each year to protect wild and farmed fish, according to a ruling in March 2016 by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates.
Since 1998, the FWS has allowed fish farmers to kill cormorants eating or threatening to eat their fish. In 2003, the agency said Indian tribes and state and federal wildlife agents could also kill birds about to eat “public resources of fish.” Those orders have been renewed every five years and still stand. The most recent renewal, extending from 2014 to 2019, simply copied bird population estimates from 2009 and did not update them.
The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sued the government to stop the practice. The group claimed that up to 160,000 double-crested cormorants have been killed each year to protect sport fish in 24 states east of the Mississippi River and fish farms in 13 of those states.
The FWS argued that it lacks resources to study the environmental effects or possible alternatives to its policies on cormorants, but that it would review and study the decision.
Judge Bates wrote that the lack-of-resources argument did not hold. Otherwise it could destroy the National Environmental Protection Act, because many agencies could make the same argument.
According to the Wilderness Society, investments in natural resources have been falling for decades, from a high of about 2.5 percent of the federal budget in 1976 to less than one percent in 2015. FWS funding for the fiscal year 2016 is nearly 15 percent below fiscal year 2010, adjusted for inflation. See the Wilderness Society’s report, “How Budget Cuts are Impacting Our Communities and the Environment: the Case for Reinvestment in FY17,” on its website. (Quad-City Times, 3-30-16; Wilderness.org)
Black Carp Reproducing
Cape Girardeau, Mo. — Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) researchers recently reported the first documented evidence of invasive black carp reproduction in the wild in North America. Last November, two unidentified carp were found in a ditch connected to the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau. Genetic analysis confirmed that they were juvenile black carp. Further testing also determined they were capable of reproduction.
Black carp are a species of invasive Asian carp found in many Missouri rivers. They originally arrived in the U.S. in shipments of grass carp and were introduced into farm ponds. Flooding and accidental release in bait buckets have allowed them to spread. Now they compete with native fish species for food, even eating native mussels that are important to the health of river habitat.
To stop the spread of black carp, fishermen are encouraged to avoid introducing the species into new bodies of water when dumping bait and to make sure stocked fish come only from licensed vendors.
Black carp sightings should be reported to the MDC, either by contacting a fisheries biologist at the Southeast Regional Office, 573-290-5730, or by contacting the Big Rivers and Wetlands Field Station in Jackson, 573-243-2659.
A new film celebrating the National Park Service’s 100th birthday was released in February. The 40-minute, MacGillivray Freeman film is narrated by Robert Redford and follows a team of adventurers as they explore national parks across America.
The movie, shown in IMAX and giant screen theaters, gives an overview of the national parks’ history with dazzling footage from 30 of the nation’s more than 400 national park sites.
Des Moines, Iowa — On March 23, 2016, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed legislation that will require the Department of Natural Resources to set rules to protect four species of turtles from overharvest. Legislators in both houses passed the bill overwhelmingly, and the governor signed it just two days after it reached his desk.
The Natural Resources Commission will limit the season and number of turtles that can be harvested. Currently, turtles can be hunted year round, even during nesting season. Although Iowa turtle populations are healthy, the new bill is expected to prevent them from becoming endangered. Turtles lay many eggs, but many eggs become food for predators or never hatch, so turtles can’t reproduce as quickly as other commonly hunted animals.
Turtle meat is a traditional food in many Asian countries where turtle populations are declining. Now, hunters are exploring new areas to meet the demand. The new bill will discourage overhunting in Iowa.
River News from March-April 2016
Lots of Goldens
Wabasha, Minn. — More than 180 volunteers drove and hiked off into the blufflands on January 16, looking for golden eagles, during the 12th annual Wintering Golden Eagle Survey sponsored by the National Eagle Center. They counted 147 golden eagles. Last year they counted 134. This year the volunteers also counted 1,509 bald eagles, compared to last year’s 1,773.
Worn Rails Fail
Washington, D.C. — Old tanker cars that are more likely to rupture on impact contribute to explosive railroad accidents, but the rails they travel may also be a problem. The Federal Railroad Administration will take a look at rules governing worn rails in 2016.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa — Former Effigy Mounds National Monument superintendent Thomas Munson pleaded guilty to embezzlement on January 4, for taking two boxes of prehistoric human remains from the monument’s collection in Marquette, Iowa, in 1990 and hiding them in his garage in Prairie du Chien, Wis., for 20 years. Munson agreed to pay $108,000 in restitution to cover the costs of the government’s investigation, publicly apologize to tribes with probable descendants of people who lived there, complete 100 hours of community service, and serve a year’s probation and home detention with confinement on 10 consecutive weekends.
River News from January-February 2016
Island Arsenal Tightens Security
Rock Island, Ill. — If you plan to tour Arsenal Island — the Mississippi River Visitor Center at Lock and Dam 15, National Cemetery, Arsenal Museum, Davenport House or any of the other attractions — be prepared for an enhanced security screening. As of December 1, visitors must first check in at the new Visitors Center at the Moline gate to get a pass (enter from River Drive in Moline). You will need to show a photo ID (for example, a valid driver’s license or passport) and agree to a criminal background check. The process could take several minutes.
You will not be able to get a pass if you are a foreign national (unless you are visiting on official business) or under 18 and not accompanied by an adult. If the criminal background check isn’t favorable, you will also be denied access.
Better Streams, More Trout
Trout Unlimited (TU), an international conservation organization, has released its “2015 State of the Trout” report detailing the status of 28 species of trout and char native to 38 of the 50 United States. The report says only 25 species remain, with 13 found in less than a quarter of their historic habitat. Trout need clean cool water to survive. Land development, over fishing, water pollution, erosion from early farming practices, poor logging and livestock grazing practices, climate change, and the introduction of non-native species have led to the extinction of three trout species. Six species are currently listed as either threatened or endangered.
The report notes regional progress. In the Driftless Area, a 24,000 square-mile area of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois that straddles the Mississippi River, TU has restored more than 450 miles of streams in the last 25 years. Many projects were on private land with angler access easements. Fish counts before restoration were from 200 to 300 fish per stream mile. After restoration they increased to over 2,000 fish per stream mile.
“We often go from these eroding banks or streams edged with shallow-rooted trees to restored streams,” said Duke Welter, conservation coordinator with organization’s Driftless Area Restoration Effort (DARE). “Once the prairie grasses grow in, you won’t know restoration has taken place. But the trout, which often increase tenfold, do. And the snakes, turtles, frogs, butterflies, shore and water birds do, too, because we build in habitat for them as well.”
A good example is Pine Creek near Maiden Rock, Wis., on Lake Pepin. “Two miles of restoration has turned Pine Creek into a gorgeous, spring-fed creek with a healthy brook trout population and scenic surroundings,” said Welter. “Not only a lovely place to fish or watch birds and butterflies, but a forager’s delight and an opportunity for the turkey or deer hunter, in season.”
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 7-14-12; East Oregonian, 9-18-15; 2015 State of the Trout)
Busy, Cleaner Year
Moline, Ill. — The year 2015 was more productive than ever for the nonprofit river cleanup organization Living Lands and Waters (LLW). In his annual year-end letter, founder Chad Pregracke counted more than 200 cleanups completed in 12 states and a record 64 events in 56 days in three states. LLW also expanded operations to the Tennessee River and added three new pieces of equipment to its fleet: a garbage barge, mini-towboat and an excavator.
LLW’s new goal is to work with partners and volunteers to remove 1,000,000 pounds of debris each year from America’s rivers. The nearly nine million pounds they’ve removed since 1998 includes 12 motorcycles, 13 hot tubs, 59 couches, 13 prosthetic limbs, one combine harvester, 4 pianos, 73,374 tires and enough foot-thick styrofoam to cover 14 football fields, among other things itemized on the “Stats” section of the organization’s web page. (Living Lands and Waters letter, 12-4-15)
La Crosse, Wis. — Fish researchers with the La Crosse Fish and Wildlife Service office finally captured and tagged invasive Asian carp in Pool 16 (Muscatine, Iowa), after failing several times in upstream pools earlier this year.
Using surgical gear and several hundred yards of gillnets, the team of three went out one windy, cold week in October and caught six Asian carp — four silver carp and one hybrid Asian carp. They implanted acoustic transmitters in them before releasing them.
The purpose of the tagging is to follow the fish as they move around, to learn where they live and to aid future efforts to control their spread. Similar research has been done in Pools 17, 18 and 19.
The Nonindigenous Aquatic Species website, hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey, shows this is the first time a state or federal agency has captured and reported Asian carp in Pool 16. Silver, bighead and grass carp have been found in Pools 17 through 25. The website’s animated map shows a steady upstream movement of silver carp, which are the ones that leap from the water when disturbed. (FWS Making Waves, October 2015)
Guttenberg, Iowa — The mudpuppy is a rare aquatic salamander species that lives in and near the Mississippi River, among other places, but is rarely seen. Mudpuppies can grow to 16 inches long, but they live underwater and are very good at hiding under rocks, in debris and near wet places.
In July 2008, a DM&E train derailed after a boulder dislodged by heavy rain tore up some track near Guttenberg. Four locomotives sank in the river and leaked oil for several days. When biologists found a dead juvenile mudpuppy, they obtained some of the $625,000 settlement to conduct a mudpuppy study.
River Data on Demand
Data about water levels, precipitation, water flow rates, and lock and dam projects is now online at CWMS Data Dissemination. The Army Corps of Engineers site features simplified charts and graphs, and live data about levels and flow at 1,700 sites across the nation, along with links to more details. You can find what you want by entering a city, state and zip code or by choosing from a map. (Waterways Journal, 11-9-15)
River News from November-December 2015
River Stories & Sounds
California artist Wes Modes spent the summer of 2015 traveling the Mississippi River’s Driftless Area on a shantyboat, visiting river towns and collecting river stories and photographs as part of a multi-year art and history project dubbed “A Secret History of American River People.”
Modes, who recently finished MFA studies in digital and new media at the University of California in Santa Cruz, was inspired by Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat: A River Way of Life, a book that chronicled the author’s five years on board a shantyboat in the 1940s. Modes built his own shantyboat in 2012 using a chicken coop and a small barge. He began collecting and recording Mississippi River stories during the summer of 2014.
Modes hopes to chronicle stories from several American rivers and combine them into an exhibition that will include portraits and video biographies of people he interviews, in addition to an interactive web documentary and a research archive of the collected stories. Details of Modes’ journey and project are on his website.
Twin Cities media artists Monica Haller and Sebastian Muellauer joined Modes at Guttenberg, Iowa, and traveled downriver to Dubuque while conducting their own river research — mapping the sounds of the Mississippi from the headwaters to the delta. They plan to bring the archive of sounds back to the Twin Cities to exhibit in a “listening station” on the banks of the river.
Haller is listening to and recording underwater river sounds using a floating drone, called ORB. Muellauer built the drone out of a large inner tube — the center is the electronic hub of the robot buoy, which suspends under- and above-water audio recording devices, a camera and water sensors to record and transmit river sounds for archival purposes. Access to these sounds will be available as a “listening station” located long-term at an institution along the Mississippi, or short term at several places along the river. Museums and organizations interested in participating are invited to contact Haller.
“Beneath the Ground,” Haller’s recent exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, featured core samples of soil from Minnesota, northern Iowa and as far south as New Orleans. Follow Haller’s current river research on her facebook page, “Listening to the Mississippi.” (Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 7-24-15; Guttenberg Press, 8-5-15)
Historic Photos Online
Des Moines — You can now see five decades of Iowa aerial photos at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website, thanks to the Iowa Historic Digital Aerial Photo Project, funded in part by grants from the state’s Resource Enhancement and Protection program (REAP).
In 2009 and 2011, Historical Resource Development Program grants from REAP helped the DNR’s Geographic Information System Section obtain photos from archives across Iowa and the nation. For more than eight years, from 2004 to 2012, the photos were scanned and matched to their actual locations, to produce images of the entire state.
Visitors to the DNR website can view Iowa landscapes from the 1930s through the 1970s to see how development and urbanization has changed the state. Soil and stream bank erosion patterns, conservation improvements and changes in vegetation and habitat can also be used to compare “trends in land use and natural resource management,” according to the DNR, “which are important to developers, landowners and managers, and planners who need to understand how a property was previously used in order to evaluate history’s environmental and character impacts.”
Changes in the Mississippi River and its shoreline development are reflected in the photos. Check out the 1930s photos to view locks and dams in various states of completion.
To see them, zoom in to the part of the state you are interested in. Use the “Basemaps” tab at the top of the page to access a pull-down menu. Click between the different maps in the pull down menu to make decade-to-decade comparisons of Iowa’s landscape.
Flush Back Lock
Joliet, Ill. — A new type of lock has been proposed to control the spread of invasive Asian carp and other unwanted species from the Mississippi River basin into the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) suggests that a “flushing lock” could be constructed on the Illinois River at the Brandon Road lock near Joliet. The lock, located downstream of the confluence of the Des Plaines River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, would push water from the lock back in the direction it came from, thus flushing back fish that might have gotten into the lock chamber.
In May 2015, the Corps released a scoping document for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). It anticipates releasing the draft EIS in late 2016. The scoping summary can be found online.
Construction costs for the new lock are estimated at more than $1 billion, which is considerably less than the $18 billion estimate for separating the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes watersheds. (Our Mississippi, Summer 2015)
Dubuque, Iowa – In early August, the city of Dubuque, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and Friends of the Mines of Spain celebrated completion of the 52-acre E.B. Lyons Interpretive Area Addition adjacent to the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, a sprawling park south of Dubuque along the Mississippi River.
The project included construction of an accessible trail from the current E.B. Lyons Center to a new trail along a tall-grass prairie and overlook, the State Tree Woodland Walk, two new parking lots, a shelter, restrooms, a new DNR maintenance facility, kiosks and interpretive signs. Scenic views, including an area on the park’s north side designated as the Catfish Creek State Preserve, were improved, native vegetation near the center was restored and runoff was reduced, improving the water quality in Catfish and Granger creeks.
More than 250,000 visitors explore the Mines of Spain each year. The park boasts several official designations: It is a state Watchable Wildlife Area and an Important Bird Area — more than 213 species have been identified there. The Mines of Spain is part of the National Recreation Trails System and a National Historic Landmark, with 252 known archaeological sites.
According to city officials, the new acquisition will “buffer the park and interpretive center from development and protect and enhance the park’s historical, archeological, cultural and natural resources.” (Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation website)
River News From July-August 2015:
Classroom on the River
Minneapolis — In September, Augsburg College will send 20 students, faculty and staff downriver from Lake Itasca headed to the Gulf of Mexico in four voyageur canoes. The group will study environmental, biological and political subjects, and delve into individual research projects along the way. Students will also attend town hall meetings and meet with environmental organizations.
Old Lead in the Water
Dubuque, Iowa — A University of Dubuque student’s research confirms that Dubuque’s waterways continue to be affected by historic lead mining.
“The effects of mining are still existing, and they will forever be existing,” according to Kyle Leytem, a senior environmental science major who spent the summer of 2014 exploring Dubuque-area waterways measuring lead content. His research showed higher levels of lead in the Mississippi between Dubuque and Bellevue, Iowa, than in other sections of the river.
Lead mining in Dubuque began on a small scale with the Native Americans and was a major source of income for settlers in the early and mid 1800s. At one time, an estimated 80 percent of Dubuque’s population mined lead. Early lead miner and historian Lucius H. Langworthy reported that between 40 and 60 million pounds of lead from Dubuque area mines were exported annually from 1833 to 1856.
Over time, lead mining and the after effects of abandoned mines caused dangerous metals to leach into nearby waterways. Leytem’s study of lead concentrations in Mississippi River pools 11 and 12, upriver and downriver from Lock and Dam 11, found higher lead concentrations in pool 12. Concentrations were especially high throughout and at the mouth of Catfish Creek, which feeds into the Mississippi south of Dubuque in the Mines of Spain State Recreation Area, an area noted for lead mining.
For more information, watch Leytem discuss his findings on a YouTube video “Concentration of Sedimentation: Effects of Mining within Streams.” (Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 4-29-15)
Going the Length
Itasca, Minn. — Navy combat veteran Chris Ring stepped into the headwaters of the Mississippi River on June 6, with plans to swim its length. He began his 2,552-mile swim on the 71st anniversary of D-Day and expects to finish at the Gulf of Mexico on Veterans’ Day, November 11. Ring’s swim is part of a project called “Legacy Challenge: Swim for Their Sacrifice,” to bring together and honor the sacrifice of people who have lost family members to war. For more information visit the Legacies website.
Swimming the length of the river is uncommon — many more people paddle a canoe or kayak — but Ring is not the first to do it. Professional marathon swimmer Martin Strel completed the swim in 2002 and performance artist Billy Curmano, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, swam it for two months every summer for ten years to spotlight ecological damage to the river. (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 6-8-15)
Meanwhile, 80-year-old Dale Sanders of Bartlett, Tenn., started on his own Headwaters-to-Gulf paddling trip on June 4. He’s paddling with a purpose — to bring awareness to and raise money for juvenile diabetes. Sanders’ grandniece has the disease. Two cameramen and a 70-year-old friend are accompanying him.
Sanders said he was a competitive spear fisherman back in the 1960s and hasn’t done anything significant since. He aims to paddle the river in 80 days and capture the record for oldest person to paddle the whole river. (Fargo Valley News Live.com, 5-21-15)
New River Trail
Hastings, Minn. — A new section of recreational trail in Spring Lake Park Preserve is under construction. The 4.3-mile, $8.9-million Spring Lake Regional Trail from eastern Rosemount through Nininger Township will include two bridges over ravines, scenic overlooks and prairie restorations. It will connect with the popular Schaar’s Bluff gathering center. The new section, which is scheduled to be finished in the fall of 2016, is part of the Mississippi River Regional Trail linking St. Paul to Hastings, mostly along the river. Spring Lake is a Mississippi River backwater lake upstream of Lock and Dam 2 and Hastings.
“There’s a lot happening along the Mississippi River,” said John Mertens, senior planner with Dakota County. “We just finished the Swing Bridge trailhead and are just beginning the trail from Harriet Island to South St. Paul. By 2018 the whole trail from Harriet Island, in St. Paul, to Hastings will be complete. Meanwhile the city of Prescott [Wis.] will build a trail linking to Hastings.”
River News from May-June 2015
Faulty Wheel Derails Train
Galena, Ill. — A fiery oil-train derailment near the Mississippi River on March 5 was caused by a faulty wheel, according to Matt Rose, the CEO of Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
Prepare to Evacuate
Canadian Pacific (CP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroads are making major investments to upgrade their tracks and connections in the Upper Mississippi River valley, in anticipation of a continued oil boom.
Paducah, Ky. — Commercial fishermen in Kentucky will be paid at least 15 cents a pound for Asian carp, thanks to a new subsidy from the state. Until now, some fish processors have paid just eight to 10 cents, not enough for fishermen to break even. The state will give tax incentives to at least three fisheries to process and market the carp to worldwide consumers.