State, federal agencies restore river habitat

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At a program on July 30, Karen Osterkamp of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources gave an overview of federal and state efforts to restore and manage the Mississippi River. (Press photo by Shelia Tomkins)

By Shelia Tomkins 

The Mississippi River that forms Guttenberg's east border is a complex and evolving system that changed dramatically with the coming of the lock and dam systems in the 1930s.

Karen Osterkamp, a biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, spoke at the Guttenberg Public Library on July 30 about federal and state efforts to help restore balance to the river habitat that was altered by those manmade systems designed to improve commercial transportation on the river. 

Displaying maps of the river in the 1890s and then in the 1990s, Osterkamp noted the dramatic changes that took place in 100 years. "Fifty-eight percent of the forests were gone and islands disappeared," she said.  Changes in current, sedimentation, oxygen levels and water depth meant a loss of habitat for the river's aquatic life.  Flood patterns altered, and much of the river's diversity was lost. "Islands are gone, and there are no little pockets for amphibians, nursery areas, and vegetation," she said. "We are now trying to create little pockets similar to back then."

Federal and state agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and agencies from states bordering the river have partnered to manage current resources and plan for the future.  

"I work from the Minnesota border all the way to Dubuque and sometimes beyond," she said. "This is my favorite part. It is a beautiful resource — a national navigation channel and a national refuge."  

Osterkamp gave an overview of past, present and future projects that are part of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program, including those in the Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhance Program. Projects at Mud Lake north of Dubuque, Sunfish Lake in Minnesota and Harper's Slough in Allamakee County were among those discussed. A project at Conway Lake near Lansing will begin in 2019.

Osterkamp showed before and after photos of Guttenberg's Bussey Lake, which was hydraulically dredged in the 1990s to improve fish habitat.  She noted that sedimentation is an ongoing issue.

Restoration work at McGregor Lake and Sturgeon Lake near Prairie du Chien, Wis., is in the planning stages, she said.

Each rehab program builds on the knowledge gathered by numerous studies through the years and on the successes and shortcomings of previous efforts. "We just kind of learn from our previous projects and start to design from that," she said.

Improving the habitat for aquatic life can include building islands to deflect the wind and divert sediment, strategic dredge cuts, creating wetlands, and adding forestry features.

One study Osterkamp spoke about was funded by the Sport Fish Restoration Fund and help determine what type of habitat various species of fish need to successfully survive the winter. Electronic transmitters were implanted in fish to track their movements. "Each fish had its own frequency, so you could locate it by going on the ice to find out where they went," she said. While fish were scattered in the channel during the summer, as water temperatures began to fall in late autumn, they move into backwater areas, seeking an ideal winter habitat for their particular species. Such data help plan future projects.

Guttenberg project

Another project in the very early planning stages is habitat restoration on the lower pool 10 islands north of Guttenberg, said Osterkamp. The 1,000-acre area is located on the Iowa side of the navigation channel about a mile upstream from Lock and Dam 10. Plans call for protecting and restoring the islands to enhance the survival of many species of fish and wildlife. Early estimated cost of the project is $15 million, to be paid with federal funds. A feasibility study is expected to be completed in 2019.

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