Crossing, and protecting, a gem of a St. Croix River

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 7, 2014 - 9:35 PM

Environmental measures are meant to offset effects of urban development.

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A four-lane bridge over the St. Croix River at Stillwater will ease transportation woes, but the environmental impact is a concern.

Photo: RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • reneejones@startribune.com,

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As the giant piers of a new four-lane commuter bridge rise from the St. Croix River, millions of dollars are quietly being spent to protect the blue ribbon waterway from environmental decay.

But even as work begins on everything from asbestos removal to archaeological inventories, concerns have surfaced that it won’t be extensive enough to shield the Lower St. Croix from further contamination once the bridge opens and exposes more grassland and forest to urban development.

Among the biggest worries is the potential harm caused by the bridge and its traffic to Lake St. Croix, the wider, deeper portion of the river from Stillwater south to Prescott, Wis. The lake was added to Minnesota’s impaired waters list in 2008 because extensive phosphorous, from stormwater runoff, was creating large oxygen-sucking algae blooms.

But that discovery didn’t come until two years after 28 stakeholders representing competing political interests — environmentalists, preservationists and local, state and federal government agencies — reached a compromise to offset “unavoidable” changes the new bridge will bring when it opens in 2016.

“We fought as hard as we could and we got what we got,” said Jim Erkel, an attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy who participated in the debate. “My fear is that the money isn’t enough.”

About $42 million of the $676 million bridge project was set aside for more than 30 protection projects, but much of that will be spent on moving or removing old buildings and other structures. An endowment fund for the Stillwater Lift Bridge, plus money spent to convert it for pedestrian use, account for about a quarter of the overall mitigations budget.

Less than $10 million will be given to local governments in St. Croix County to address urban growth and the potential threat to the river.

Engineers and planners on both sides of the river say their environmental work carries far-reaching benefits for water quality, tourism and other major issues confronting the St. Croix. It also will increase public awareness of pollution, erosion and other threats, they said.

“Being right there on the National Wild and Scenic River, there’s quite a gem there that this effort is identified to help protect,” said Dan Bauman, a regional director at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources who is coordinating efforts on his side of the river. “We need to be smart about protecting water quality and quantity. If we don’t do the planning now, by the time the development gets here, it’s too late, it’s too costly.”

The dozens of projects designed to protect the river and its surrounding environment might be the most ever for a Minnesota bridge project, said Todd Clarkowski, the MnDOT project engineer overseeing the work.

The projects include an agreement in which Minnesota and Wisconsin will pay a total of $2.7 million to manage urban growth in St. Croix County. That agreement includes land-use planning and new local zoning ordinances in cities and towns most affected by the bridge, such as the Town of St. Joseph, Wis. A “riverway impacts” agreement also supplies $4.5 million for land conservation purchases to compensate for damage to the Wisconsin bluff land where the bridge will cross.

Fixing old problems

Environmentalists say mitigation spending is necessary because potential harm to the river from converting rural land to paved roads, parking lots, houses and commercial buildings is becoming more unpredictable as construction transforms the landscape.

The 2006 stakeholder agreement, Erkel said, didn’t result from policy-based consensus but from painful negotiations and threats of lawsuits. But the millions of dollars set forth in the agreement are only a beginning — local governments will still need to find additional funding to sustain water quality programs through taxation or through state grants, because mitigation funding falls short, Erkel said.

“One of the frustrations is that the [mitigations] package was done a long time ago,” said Deb Ryun, executive director of the St. Croix River Association.

Money allocated for the work, she said, is standard for a construction project, but doesn’t reflect the river’s special qualities.

Clarkowski and other engineers and planners, however, say mitigations will eliminate long-standing problems, such as oil and gas running off the Stillwater Lift Bridge into the river, and eyesores such as abandoned buildings and unused barge piers. Stormwater diversions will reduce phosphorous entering the river, he said.

Still, Erkel said, the mitigations pale in comparison to threats posed by the bridge, which will stand more than two times taller than the Interstate 94 bridge at Hudson, Wis.

Minnesota and Wisconsin each will pay half of all mitigation costs, regardless of location, according to partnership agreements. MnDOT is considered the lead agency, spending state funds for work in Wisconsin, but contracts stipulate that Wisconsin will refund half the overall cost.

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  • Construction is under way on the four-lane bridge that will cross the St. Croix River. These two pilings are near the Wisconsin side, across from Stillwater.

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