Posted on October 19, 2023
Since the early 20th century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been dredging the Mississippi River annually to keep the channel open for boats, ships and barges.
Each year, the Corps removes about 270,000 cubic yards of sand, within a roughly 6-mile stretch of the river, centered on the city of Wabasha. The dredging is done to maintain a 9-foot navigable channel along the river.
All that sand, rocks and other material has to go somewhere, so the city of Wabasha wants to build a barge terminal to facilitate the transfer of sand from river barges to trucks for transport to off-site facilities. It can then be used as fill material for existing sand and gravel mines or another potential reuse.
The accumulation of sediment has been “a forever situation” at the location, where the Mississippi and Chippewa rivers come together, said John Friedmeyer, City Council president and president of the Wabasha Port Authority.
The 8.2-acre Wabasha Barge Facility would be built on a vacant, 59-acre parcel. The city would own the project site and contract out the port operations and transportation of materials.
The project will include dredging an area to accommodate barge maneuvering and docking, building a barge terminal pad and access road, building a sheet pile dock face, and upstream/downstream steel pipe pile clusters for barge mooring and maneuvering; and constructing footings for conveyors and hoppers for material handling and load-out, and building a scale house/field office building.
Detailed construction plans have not been completed, officials said. Some of the dredged material will be used as fill material on the barge terminal site to raise the storage area above the 100-year flood elevation.
The Wabasha Port Authority has prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project; it is currently subject to a public comment period that ends Nov. 1. The city hopes to begin construction sometime in 2024, depending on when the city receives the funding to cover costs, estimated at “well over $3 million,” according to Wabasha Mayor Emily Durand.
At this point, “financing is the key to the whole project” for the town of roughly 2,500 residents, Friedmeyer said.
So far, the city has received initial funding and is applying for more, he said. “We still have a lot more permitting to go through; the work shouldn’t take much more than a year to finish.”
Where to put the river sand became something of a local controversy in 2017, when the Corps released a draft plan proposing to dump some sand on “actively farmed land, which was not acceptable,” Durand said. The Corps also wanted to put some sand in river backwaters near a residential street. That would have meant hundreds of trucks coming through on non-truck routes.
As a result, “we’ve been doing a public defense campaign to be a partner in solving this problem,” Durand said. “The city learned that if we want to be part of the solution, we need to be at the table. … The barge terminal is part of our response.”
In July, the Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District and city officials signed a river sand management agreement that enables the city (and its Port Authority) to manage the Corps’ dredged river sand within the Mississippi River Lower Pool 4 area. The Corps will pay the city a tipping fee to help manage river sand. The agreement represents the “impetus” for the barge facility project, Friedmeyer said
According to the Corps, the agreement — which has been in the works for several years — is the first of its kind for inland waters within the United States. The city now has more control of where the sand goes and can develop more beneficial reuse opportunities, officials said.
The Corps has been off-loading sand into a “huge” sandlot it owns northwest of the city. “One of the first things we’ll do is help truck material out of that sand pit to another mutually acceptable location” so there will be room for more dredged sand as needed, Durand said.
The city has received some funding for the new facility from the state Legislature and is applying for more from both state and federal agencies, she said.