Ramsey County park staffers liken the waters of Pig's Eye Lake to a desert.

Wind across the shallow lake in St. Paul's remote southeast corner stirs sediment in the water, blocking sunlight and preventing vegetation from taking root. Under the surface, carp root along the bottom, exacerbating the problem.

So the county, which owns 500 acres of parkland around the huge lake, is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build seven islands in the lake to draw more diverse wildlife such as frogs, fish and birds back to the lake.

The area has great potential. Much of the shoreline teems with life: Bald eagles, herons and other birds nest in the trees that ring the Mississippi River backwater. "Instead of driving by and seeing an aquatic desert, we want you to see a nature preserve," said Mark McCabe, Ramsey County's parks and recreation director.

But the Metropolitan Council and a St. Paul City Council member say the project needs more study because the lake is next to a large Superfund site, the old Pig's Eye Dump. Met Council staffers say that any island building would require more public input and approval from elected officials.

The islands, made of material dredged from river channels, would cost $12.6 million to construct — $8.4 million in federal money and the balance with state Legacy Amendment funds, according to the Army Corps. The Army Corps wants to start construction on the islands next year.

The Met Council sent the Army Corps an eight-page letter in April 2018 outlining concerns with the project, said Lisa Barajas, the council's community development director. Met Council, Army Corps and county officials met this week to discuss the project.

"The agencies will continue to meet to work on making this project successful and assess and determine a path forward," said a Met Council spokeswoman.

St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince, who represents the Pig's Eye area, said the public should know more about the project and the use of dredge materials.

"You just don't do a project of this magnitude without notifying and informing the public," said Prince, who is drafting a resolution seeking a public hearing. "People on the East Side have taken this dumping long enough."

Ramsey County and Army Corps officials say that the project would transform the area next to the old dump site into natural habitat that could be accessible to paddlers, hikers and bird watchers. It's gotten early support from stakeholders like the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River.

"Creating some islands that may have historically existed in that area makes sense," said Friends Executive Director Whitney Clark, who describes Pig's Eye Lake as a "gem people don't know about."

A natural backwater

The dredge material to constitute the islands would come from the river, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would review its testing, said Nathan Campbell, project manager for the Army Corps' St. Paul District. So far, the material has been found to be much cleaner than sediment in the lake, said MPCA spokesman Walker Smith.

The artificial islands would not affect flooding or interfere with efforts to contain the old dump site, Campbell said. Army Corps officials point to similar projects near Winona, Minn., and Buffalo County, Wis., where islands constructed more than a decade ago are now flush with life.

"We do a lot of island building up and down the Mississippi, but mostly on U.S. Fish and Wildlife lands," Campbell said. "We have completed 28 island-building projects, totaling 110 islands," all with the support, he added, of both Minnesota and Wisconsin, federal agencies and nonprofit river advocates. The Army Corps has sought public comment and worked with "numerous stakeholder groups," he said.

The Pig's Eye islands, which would span nearly 20 acres, would create shorelines where plants and fish, frogs, waterfowl and river otters might flourish. Many would be shaped like horseshoes to maximize the amount of shoreline and habitat created.

Ramsey County Natural Resources Director Mike Goodnature called it the county's largest water restoration project and compared it to work done to restore oak woodlands and other natural spaces. The county owns more than 7,000 acres of parkland and open space.

County officials say they're seeking input on future uses of the public land around Pig's Eye as part of their master planning for nearby Battle Creek Regional Park.

"It's a unique opportunity because Ramsey County owns most of the lakeshore," Goodnature said.

Pig's Eye Lake, which covers more than 600 acres, is a natural backwater of the Mississippi where small islands likely once existed, shifting with the ebb and flow of the river. Things changed after the lock and dam system was built on the river in the 1930s, and Army Corps staffers say the lake has expanded its footprint since the 1950s.

Other human encroachments have affected the area. Pig's Eye Dump operated on the north side of the lake between 1956 and 1972, and much of the waste — an estimated 8.3 million cubic yards — was deposited in wetland areas. It made Pig's Eye the largest unpermitted dump site in Minnesota.

Work has been done over the years to eliminate or minimize "hot spots" of contamination, but the MCPA said it was unlikely that Pig's Eye Dump "will ever be completely cleaned up." The Met Council's Wastewater Treatment Plant also is close to the lake, depositing sludge ash from 1977 to 1985.

While the area will never be pristine, Campbell said, the goal is higher-quality habitat.

Even more pollution?

Met Council officials say there are several issues the Army Corps needs to address. One is the question of whether sandy dredgings will remain on the lake's mucky bottom or wash away, Barajas said.

And while islands have been shown to help lower nutrient levels in other locations along the Mississippi, Pig's Eye Lake may contain metals and chemicals from the old dump site.

"In the case of Pig's Eye, there are a much larger variety of pollutants that contaminate that water body. There wasn't evidence or analysis presented that would show that island-building would solve contamination," Barajas said.

Campbell said Army Corps officials have met with wildlife experts from the state, the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to weigh the pros and cons of the project.

"We are not solving water-quality issues. We are solving habitat issues," he said. "The overarching sentiment by the agencies was any improvement is better than no improvement."

Battle Creek neighborhood resident Tom Dimond, a former St. Paul City Council member, opposes the island plan. He said he's concerned about the use of possibly contaminated dredge material, and that the islands could turn into another mess that needs cleaning up.

"This area already has great pollution, he said.

St. Paul officials view Pig's Eye Lake and the surrounding public land as a critical piece of its Great River Passage initiative, an effort to "tap into the potential" of the city's 26 miles of riverfront.

"It's a pretty amazing piece of land," said Alice Messer, who manages design and construction for St. Paul Parks and Recreation.

Messer said the main concerns are long-term maintenance and management of the islands, and improving access to the lake. Pig's Eye can be seen by motorists on Hwy. 61, but there are no clear public-access points.

"With the barge industry and the rail lines, it's a little isolated right now," she said.

Officials with the Friends of the Mississippi River are optimistic about the project's potential.

"Our view is that this is a positive use of this dredge material for the creation of habitat," Clark said. "It's a technique that has been very successfully used particularly in downstream pools."

Campbell said it all comes down to leaving the Pig's Eye area, once sullied by dumping, in better shape than how they found it.

"Someday I want to take my kids out in a canoe and show them: 'We worked on this great project that created all this awesome habitat in this metropolitan area,' " Campbell said. "That is what we are all striving for: to improve the natural habitat for future generations."