A recent funding surge for environmental restoration projects on the Upper Mississippi River will benefit fish, wildlife and recreationists.
The Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program “has been fully funded for the past three years, and we have a lot going on right now,” said Kirk Hansen, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries research biologist at Bellevue.
“We have more projects going on right now than we’ve ever had. It’s exciting,” said DNR fisheries biologist Scott Gritters, who also is stationed at Bellevue.
“We’ve had three really good funding years in a row,” said Marv Hubbell, who administers Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Projects for the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and natural resource departments in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin work cooperatively on the restoration program.
It had been funded at an annual level of about $16 million for several years and that amount was expected for fiscal year 2013, Hubbell said.
“We actually got $24.5 million for FY13, and the federal appropriation increased to $32 million in FY14 (fiscal year 2014) and to $33.17 million in FY15,” he said.
The increased funding, coupled with several “absolutely shovel-ready” projects along Iowa’s eastern border, he said, has resulted in five major projects underway in the Corps’ Rock Island District, which encompasses 314 miles of the Mississippi — much of it along Iowa’s border.
Such projects typically involve dredging to increase the depth in backwaters that have filled with sediment since the construction of the lock and dam system in the 1930s.
Iowa DNR research has established that the loss of suitable overwintering spots — backwaters with sufficient depth, oxygen content and lack of current — is a major limiting factor in the survival and subsequent reproduction of bass, bluegill, crappies and sunfish.
In most cases the dredge spoils are used to build islands and berms that provide wildlife habitat while obstructing the erosive forces of waves.
Dredging and the building of islands and berms are key components of the nearly completed Sunfish Lake project on pool 12 above Bellevue and of the Harpers Slough project that got underway in April on lower pool 9.
Two miles of channels will be dredged in the 300-acre Sunfish Lake backwater, restoring about 16 acres of deep backwater channels.
The dredge spoils have been used to build berms that will help keep sediment out of the lake, and trees will be planted on the berms to enhance the flood plain forest habitat.
On pool 9, the Corps is constructing seven islands and three emergent wetlands within the 2,200-acre Harpers Slough backwater.
The islands — built with dredge spoils from the main channel and the slough — will be revegetated and armored with rock to prevent erosion. The nearly 100 acres of new islands will limit wave action, protecting and enhancing aquatic vegetation, and the backwater dredging will create deeper holes for overwintering fish habitat.
Work on the $11.9 million Harpers Slough project will continue over the next few years.
Similar projects are underway or in development for the Beaver Island complex near Clinton, the Huron Island complex in pool 18 and at Lake Odessa in Louisa County.
Gritters said the projects will incorporate an innovative approach to increasing the diversity of river bottom forests, which have come to be dominated by water-tolerant silver maples in the decades since the construction of the lock and dam system.
“We’re going to build the islands and berms high enough to support oaks and other mast-producing trees, which will benefit wildlife and the overall health of the ecosystem,” he said.