WABASHA, MINN. – One day last month, a FedEx driver dropped a box on the doorstep of the Drysdale farmhouse, a rambling, well-kept place sitting on 298 acres of rich Mississippi River bottomland about three miles south of town.
It’s land the family has worked for four generations, starting with a dairy operation in the 1930s. Today, they run a herd of 50 registered Angus cattle breeding stock on part of the acreage and rent the rest to a local farmer who grows corn.
When the Drysdales opened their package, they found a three-ring binder inside with 150 pages of charts, maps and scientific analysis laying out a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to slowly bury their farm under 15 feet of Mississippi River sand.
The family was stunned. And they weren’t alone.
Earlier this month, the Drysdales joined more than 400 local residents at a public meeting to challenge the Corps’ tentative plan to dredge an 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi to keep the channel clear for barge traffic. Among the chief concerns: the fate of the Drysdale farm and the long-term impact of the massive dredging operation on this scenic river town of 2,500 people about 85 miles south of the Twin Cities.
“There’s been a Drysdale living on this property continuously since my grandparents arrived in 1939,” said Willard Drysdale, his voice choked with emotion as he addressed a packed auditorium at the Wabasha-Kellogg High School. “You’ll never find another 300-acre parcel like it to replace it.
“If this acquisition goes through, everything I have worked for will be gone.”
No final decision has been made, and Corps representatives have said they’re open to considering other options. Meanwhile, the community’s outrage has captured the attention of federal lawmakers on both sides of the river.
This week, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., sent a letter to the Corps commander, asking him to find a different location for the dredged material. A similar request was made by Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. On Thursday, the Corps agreed to extend the public comment period until July 14, a Franken spokesman said.
“The thing that was shocking was, when you look at their criteria, human impact is not even considered,” said Karla Schedlbauer, who owns a local brewpub and lives 100 feet from where hundreds of sand-laden dump trucks will depart daily during peak dredging.
“This is a tourist town. Our population doubles in the summer. If [tourists] have to fight trucks, they will just stop coming.”
Corps hemmed in
Corps engineers say the Drysdale farm must be sacrificed to keep the Mississippi River open for barge traffic. The Corps has a duty to maintain a 9-foot-deep channel, the minimum depth needed for barges laden with the agricultural bounty of the Upper Midwest.
That requires continuous dredging to scoop out the sand and silt that accumulates in the channel — hundreds of thousands of cubic yards each year. And that sand needs a place to go.
Craig Evans, a Corps planner, said the agency is hemmed in by laws and regulations that require it to handle dredging in the most cost-effective way possible. That rules out trucking the sand long distances.
The Corps also cannot dump the sand and silt in environmentally sensitive wetlands, which are abundant in the region. In the past, sand has been dumped in empty gravel pits in the area, but those are filling up, Evans said.
The only spot close that is not a wetland is the Drysdale farm, Evans said. Under the Corps’ tentative plan, it would dump about 7 million cubic yards there over the next 40 years, enough to cover the land 15 feet deep.
All of which worries Willard Drysdale, 61, who has spent the last month studying his binder incessantly, agonizing over its contents.
“That book is in his hands all the time,” said his daughter, Chelsey Drysdale, 26, who’s taking over management of the family’s Angus herd and also works as an animal feed sales representative.
Willard Drysdale, a soft-spoken man who weighs his words carefully, has spent his entire life on the farm, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Bill, and his father, Peter. He’s proud of it, too, and on a recent afternoon pulled out a 1960 copy of the Farmer magazine. In it is an article on the family’s operation, with a photo of 4-year-old Willard with his father and grandfather in the dairy barn.
“The worst anxiety is when you’re home alone at night, worrying about it,” he said.
Noise and traffic concerns
Residents of the exclusive Riverview neighborhood worry, too.
The Corps picked their neighborhood as the site of a transfer station, where trucks will load up the dredged sand and rumble off to the Drysdale place. At peak times, the transfer station will send a fully laden dump truck through the neighborhood every minute.
“It’s a very desirable neighborhood now, and I see that as lessening” if the plan goes through, said Mayor Rollin Hall, who’s lived in Riverview for about 15 years. “I know of two instances recently where there were properties sold, and the buyer backed out.”
At the meeting at the high school earlier this month, Riverview residents expressed concern about noise, traffic and safety. They also worried about a potential hit to their property values and mourned the potential loss of their quiet enjoyment of the river.
“It’s a very serious issue,” said Paul Machajewski, channel maintenance coordinator for the St. Paul District of the Corps. “There are concerns across the board. We understand that.
“If there are better options, we want to hear them.”
Yet when citizens at the meeting suggested an alternative idea, the response often seemed to be that the Corps already had considered it — and rejected it.
That said, there still may be a way to keep all of the residents, including the Drysdales, happy, said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. Drazkowski, a former county ag agent who represents the rural area south of Wabasha, said he believes the Corps is “very genuine” in its “desire to work toward other alternatives.
“I think they just got a clear, unanimous message from people in the community that this just isn’t going to work,” he added. “I think they might be starting to adjust their view of the acceptability of this plan.”
One option, Drazkowski said, is to sift the sand for use in oil and gas fracking. The vast majority of the sand along this stretch of the Mississippi is discharged from the Chippewa River in Wisconsin, a geologically young river that’s swift and narrow and rapidly eroding its sandy banks. About 40 percent of the Chippewa sand is considered suitable for “frac” use, he said.
An idea Drazkowski likes even more is moving the sand upriver to Lake Pepin and using it to create a large, recreational island.
“In much of the lake, there is virtually no current,” he said. “You could create a recreational island that would enhance tourism and be great for fishing.”
Those options, however, were far from Willard Drysdale’s mind as he waited to speak at the public meeting earlier this month. Sitting in the high school auditorium’s second row, he sighed heavily and said, with no trace of humor, that he was feeling heart palpitations. When his turn came to speak, he rose and took the microphone, reading from a sheet of paper without looking up.
He thanked his father and grandfather for the heritage they left him, and expressed hope that his daughter would be able to carry it on. He urged the government not to destroy a productive piece of land. And he offered support to others who would be affected by the dredging plan, saying, “It’s not just about us.”
As Drysdale finished, the crowd rose and delivered a standing ovation.