Corps work on river

The Corps of Engineers is removing sand from the Mississippi River and restoring islands used by nesting colonies of waterbirds.

Our Mississippi River is an angry river. Its raging currents of muddy water have smothered our sand beaches, eroded islands and shorelines, and undoubtedly will have long term impacts to our floodplain forest causing tree mortality.

Mother Nature’s flushing of the Mississippi River is one of the longest flood events in recent history. Her wrath is wreaking havoc on river users. Floating logs and large debris including wooden docks are being carried by fast moving currents that will torpedo an unwary watercraft.

The Rock Island District Corps of Engineers is tasked with maintaining a marine highway for commercial navigation along the Mississippi River. This requires a minimum 9-foot-deep channel measuring 300 feet wide that must be maintained for hundreds of river miles. Commercial navigation generates millions of dollars in revenue daily; any interruption in river passage has an economic impact.

The Corps channel maintenance folks have job security due to the extensive flooding. They typically remove about 340,000 cubic yards of material from the navigation channel annually. Currently, over one million cubic yards of sediment are identified to be removed. There are a limited number of specific sites where this material can be placed along the shoreline, so much of it is dumped back into the river in deeper areas that have high flow and is called thalweg placement.

The Corps recently removed 90,000 cubic yards of sand from the Pool 14 Steamboat Island main channel area located 11 miles south of Clinton. Sand was placed on Princeton beach but its capacity was reached and the rest was placed in the thalweg.

Smith’s Bay in Pool 13, located 6 1/2 miles north of Clinton, is a chronic site for sand buildup. A large shoal is present on the west side of the channel with 34,000 cubic yards of sand being mechanically excavated that started Oct. 15.

The Corps is loading this sand onto barges and placing it onto Islands 303 and 304 that are located 1 1/2 miles downstream. These islands are historic colonial nesting sites for many species of waterbirds and have been severely eroded by flooding.

On Oct. 16, two barges containing anhydrous ammonia ran aground at Smith’s Bay due to the sand buildup. Lightering operations were conducted and the barges were back on their journey north on Oct. 17.

We’ve had other close calls on the river. In November 2013, the towboat Stephen L. Colby was carrying 1,100 gallons of oil and 90,000 gallons of diesel fuel when it hit the rock bottom at the Rock Island rapids near LeClaire and resulted in thousands of gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the river. In March 2015, six rail cars from a BNSF train derailed along the river shoreline at Galena, Illinois that resulted in two cars containing 66,000 gallons of crude oil splitting open and bursting into flames.

We see the wildness of Mother Nature by living along the mighty Mississippi River. Perhaps her wrath will soon subside and we will once again see her gentler side.

Ed Britton is a Wildlife Refuge Manager at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and a volunteer at Bickelhaupt Arboretum.