In September, the St. Paul District conducted an on-site training event with federal and state partners to look at past and ongoing island projects to determine the best path forward for restoration projects as part of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program, or UMRR.
Participants included representatives from the Corps and agency representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as from the Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa departments of natural resources.
“Today is a training exercise,” said Scott Baker, Winona resident engineer. “We are seeing some typical projects to talk about lessons learned, what worked well and what didn’t work well, so that knowledge can be incorporated into future projects.”
The team of agency representatives visited Conway Lake and Harpers Slough restoration projects, in Pool 9 of the Mississippi River, which were completed in 2022. The team also visited McGregor Lake Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Project, an active construction project.
“These exercises are important because we’re getting more money for island projects, and we have more projects now in various phases than we’ve ever had before,” said Baker.
Baker explained that these projects are important for wildlife.
“The river is losing habitat at a very fast rate. The islands are disappearing, which had lead to increasingly turbulent water and light can’t get through to help the vegetation grow. That habitat and vegetation is particularly important for migratory birds,” said Baker.
UMRR started in 1986 when environmentalists filed a lawsuit when Lock and Dam 27 was built, wanting environmental work done on the river. The compromise started the Environmental Management Program, which would become UMRR. It was authorized for $200 million over a 20-year period and was reauthorized in 2006.
UMRR ensures the coordinated development and enhancement of the Upper Mississippi River system with a primary emphasis on habitat restoration projects and resource monitoring. In the 36-year history of the program, more than 55 habitat projects benefiting approximately 100,000 acres from Minneapolis to St. Louis, have been completed.
“I enjoy these projects in particular because you can see tangible results for future generations to enjoy the wildlife,” said Baker.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District is working to delay upriver progression of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico by augmenting the sill initially constructed in July 2023.
Construction is underway to increase the existing underwater sill from a depth of -55 feet to a depth of -30 feet. A 620-foot-wide navigation lane will be kept to a depth of -55 feet to ensure deep-draft shipping continues along the nation’s busiest inland waterway.
USACE initially constructed the underwater barrier sill in July 2023 to create an artificial basin to delay the ingress of salt water beyond river mile 64 above Head of Passes. As a result of the river’s prolonged extreme low-flow rate, the underwater sill was overtopped Sept. 20, 2023.
“As a result of continued falling conditions, this existing sill was overtopped and the toe of the saltwater wedge has reached River Mile 69, near the community of Jesuit Bend,” said Col. Cullen Jones, USACE New Orleans District commander. “Our modeling indicates that by augmenting the existing sill, we can support state and local preparedness and response efforts by delaying further upriver progression of the salt water by approximately 10 to 15 days.”
In addition to the sill augmentation, USACE is preparing to transport fresh water to impacted areas. During previous low-water events, such as 1988 and 2012, barging was used to transport fresh water to treatment facilities downriver of the saltwater toe.
“The Corps is securing water barges that will support impacted water treatment facilities by transporting water collected from portions of the river that do not have salinity readings,” said Jones. “This water can then be combined with water at the municipal facility to create a mixture that is safe for treatment.”
The intrusion of salt water into the river is a naturally occurring phenomenon because the bottom of the riverbed between Natchez, Miss., and the Gulf of Mexico is below sea level. Denser salt water moves upriver along the bottom of the river beneath the less dense fresh water flowing downstream. Under normal conditions, the downstream flow of the river prevents significant upriver progression of the salt water. However, in times of extreme low volume water flow, such as what has been occurring this year, unimpeded salt water can travel upriver and threaten municipal drinking water and industrial water supplies. An underwater sill was constructed on four previous occasions in 1988, 1999, 2012 and last year in 2022.
“As new information becomes available, we will reevaluate the projected movement of the salt water and share this information with our partners and the public for their preparedness, readiness, and response,” said Jones.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District, held a press conference Sept. 15, 2023, at their headquarters in New Orleans, La., to discuss planned efforts to address continued low-water conditions on the Mississippi River.
Col. Cullen Jones, USACE New Orleans District commander, briefed media on current steps the Corps plans to take to augment the existing underwater sill while working with the U.S. Coast Guard and navigation industry to maintain navigation along the Mississippi River. In addition, Plaquemines Parish President Keith Hinkley and Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness director, Casey Tingle, spoke to media at the conference about steps to ensure safe and sufficient water supplies for parish residents.“
The current National Weather Service Mississippi River forecasts the river’s volume to fall to historic lows over the next several weeks,” said Jones. “If these conditions occur, the USACE-constructed saltwater barrier sill is expected to be overtopped by saltwater intruding upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, leading to unsafe salinity conditions at municipal water intakes located north of the sill location.
”Efforts under consideration include barging water downriver to municipal treatment facilities and placement of Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Units to allow for treatment of river water with high chloride levels. USACE has already issued a contract to place a reverse osmosis water purification unit at the East Pointe a la Hache Water Treatment Plant.
To mitigate for the Deep Draft Shipping Channel’s influence on the rate of upriver saltwater progression, USACE constructed an underwater barrier sill in July 2023 to create an artificial basin that delays the ingress of saltwater beyond river mile 64 above Head of Passes. An underwater sill was constructed on four previous occasions in 1988, 1999, 2012 and last year in 2022. During previous low-water events, such as 1988 and 2012, barging was used to transport fresh water to treatment facilities downriver of the saltwater wedge.
USACE continues to closely monitor, survey and model the impacts these conditions may have on the river with regards to both navigation and saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico. Saltwater intrusion is a naturally occurring phenomenon when the river flows fall below 300,000 cubic feet per second because the mass of fresh water is no longer capable of preventing saltwater from moving into the below-sea-level river channel. The current National Weather Service forecast projects river levels falling to approximately 130,000 cubic feet per second in the New Orleans area. These levels represent the lowest river volume in this area since the recorded low of 120,000 cubic feet per second in 1988.
“This low-water event marks the first time underwater sills were required in back-to-back years as a result of saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico,” Jones added. “However, the New Orleans District is ready to meet this challenge with the best science, engineering data, and technology available.”
Leaders, scientists and engineers from the Mekong region and the United States are joining together to address increasing challenges over water security and river management.
Preparations are underway in Hawaii and California for next week’s arrival of a high-level Mekong River Commission (MRC-Mekong) delegation, which heads to the United States as part of the annual Sister Rivers Partnership Exchange program. Sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the MRC-Mekong delegates are scheduled to meet with the Mississippi River Commission (MRC-USA) to exchange best practices on water and river management. The two commissions will be joined by a third water commission, the International Water and Boundary Commission (IBWC) to learn about how the U.S. and Mexico cooperate on transboundary issues on their shared rivers.
From the MRC-Mekong side, the August 14–18 exchange will include discussions on the five most “troubling” trends currently facing the Mekong River Basin: changing flow regime, sediment flow, salinity intrusion, plastic pollution, and flood and drought exacerbated by climate change. The USACE Pacific Ocean Division (POD) Commanding General, Brig. Gen. Kirk E. Gibbs, will welcome the MRC-Mekong delegation to California, where they will visit the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, Castaic Pump Storage Power Plant, University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Prado Dam, and an international wastewater treatment plant.
“We’re eager to share the innovative ways that we use infrastructure and cutting edge technology in the U.S. to help monitor water, assess climate impacts, and forecast flooding,” says Gibbs. “While the specific nature of our challenges may differ, we share a common goal: the sustainable management and development of water resources. This enhances stability in the region and supports an economically prosperous, socially just, environmentally sound and climate resilient Mekong River Basin.”
Embracing this multilateral exchange is the CEO of Mekong River Commission Secretariat, Dr. Anoulak Kittikhoun, together with the “Heads of Delegation” and Joint Committee members from Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam.
“Experience is the best teacher, and we learn more how to tackle our own challenges as we go along – what works and what doesn’t,” says Kittikhoun. “But through partnerships like this with the Mississippi River Commission and USACE, we also benefit by learning from their experiences and expertise.”
Brig. Gen. Kimberly Peeples, the MRC-USA president and USACE Mississippi Valley Division commanding general, emphasized the importance of international collaboration to address shared challenges.
“Water is a universal necessity. With climate change, how we manage this essential resource must adapt to existing and new water related challenges,” says Peeples. “This partnership is a forum to do just that: collaborate and share our knowledge, our best practices and mistakes, so we can work together to meet these challenges head on. At the same time, enhance capabilities of impacted communities in both the Mississippi and Mekong delta regions.”
The imminent Sister Rivers Partnership Exchange will also include Dr. Maria-Elena Giner, the U.S. commissioner for the IBWC, and Commissioner Adriana Reséndez of Mexico’s Comision Internacional de Limites y Agua (CILA). They will share how the U.S. and Mexico cooperate on water, energy, climate change, and mutual challenges along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Sister Rivers Partnership was launched in 2010 to formalize collaboration in water resource management; the exchange program accomplishes this through its promotion of international collaboration, technical exchanges, and sharing of best practices, which enhances transboundary river governance, disaster risk mitigation, and sustainable development – all aimed to promote stability and prosperity.
After a two-year hiatus due to COVID restrictions on travel, the exchange program resumed last July, when an MRC-USA delegation visited with their Mekong counterparts in Lao PDR and Cambodia. During that exchange, the two commissions also renewed their five-year Memorandum of Understanding, which covers 11 areas of cooperation related to water resources management.
About the Mekong River Commission: The MRC-Mekong is an intergovernmental organization established in 1995 to boost regional dialogue and cooperation in the Lower Mekong River Basin. Based on the Mekong Agreement among Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam, the MRC-Mekong serves as both a regional platform for water diplomacy and a knowledge hub – to manage water resources and support sustainable development of the region.
About the Mississippi River Commission: The MRC-USA was established by an Act of Congress on June 28, 1879. The MRC-USA provides water resources engineering direction and policy advice to the Administration, Congress and the Army in a drainage basin that covers 41 percent of the U.S. and parts of two Canadian provinces by overseeing the planning and reporting on the improvements on the Mississippi River. The intent behind the mission of the MRC-USA today is the same as the mission placed on the commission upon its creation—to lead sustainable management and development of water related resources for the nation’s benefit and the people’s well-being.
About the Pacific Ocean Division: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pacific Ocean Division has a highly diverse workforce of over 1,600 military, civilian and local national team members. The POD mission includes engineering design, construction and real estate management for the Army in Hawaii, Army and Air Force in Alaska, and for all Department of Defense Services and Agencies in Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. The Division also administers the Corps’ federal water resource development program and waters and wetlands regulatory programs in Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The POD program includes the multi-year $10.7 billion Korea Transformation Program and the $15.8 billion U.S. Japan Defense Policy Review Initiative. POD also supports U.S Indo-Pacific Command’s and U.S. Army Pacific’s Theater Security Cooperation strategies, Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response (HA/DR) Program, and Civil-Military Emergency Preparedness with projects throughout the Indo-Asia Pacific region.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, closed several Mississippi River locks and dams to all commercial and recreational traffic this past weekend and anticipates more closures in the coming days.
The current lock and dam closures with the St. Paul District include:
• Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, Minneapolis;
• Lock and Dam 1, Minneapolis;
• Lock and Dam 3, Welch, Minnesota;
• Lock and Dam 4, Alma, Wisconsin;
• Lock and Dam 5, Minnesota City, Minnesota;
• Lock and Dam 5A, Fountain City, Wisconsin;
• Lock and Dam 6, Trempealeau, Wisconsin; and
• Lock and Dam 8, Genoa, Wisconsin;
Corps officials anticipate closing Lock and Dam 10, Guttenberg, Iowa, within the next day.
All of the locks are expected to be closed for around a week to 10 days depending on the location and river levels and when it is safe to resume navigation. Lock and Dam 2, Hastings, Minnesota; Lock and Dam 7, La Crescent, Minnesota; and Lock and Dam 9, Lynxville, Wisconsin, are not expected to close at this time.