New Pig's Eye Lake islands on the way!

by Alex Roth

Pig's Eye Lake is a favorite spot in our local flyway for pelicans, who will benefit from the new islands. (Photo by Monica Bryand for Great River Passage.)

From road work to new buildings, construction projects are a constant for most Twin Cities residents. Soon, a new type of project is coming to St. Paul: seven small islands within Pig's Eye Lake.

Using dredged material from their channel maintenance work in the Mississippi's main stem, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may begin building the islands in the East Side St. Paul riverfront park as early as this fall (2020).   

FMR is excited about the additional wildlife habitat and has also been communicating with the Corps' about ways to make the most of the islands' creation, and treat them as both habitat and living laboratories to help us address climate change. 

Initial barriers

When the Corps announced the island-building project, it was met with a fair share of concern and negative feedback. 

Many critics saw the islands as nothing more than a public-relations-savvy way for the Corps to dispose of "dredge spoils." Some also worried that their building would disrupt polluted sediment in Pig's Eye Lake; others were concerned that pilots at St. Paul's downtown airport (Holman Field) would have to contend with an increase in bird collisions.

But after discussing the project with the Corps and other partners, FMR decided that the potential gains far outweighed the possible negative impacts. 

Like our executive director, Whitney Clark, said in a recent MSP Magazine article on the project, "I see a lot of ecological benefits, and I don’t think there are any significant downsides.” 

Benefits

FMR became involved in the project in 2018 after the Corps solicited feedback on its island-building proposal.

Our ecologists submitted a letter of support for their main objectives, namely creating habitat for wildlife and mitigating erosion (the islands are positioned to reduce the amount of open water that wind can blow over, which will result in smaller waves crashing upon and eroding Pig's Eye Lake's shoreline).

But the main purpose of our letter was to urge the Corps to go further — to use the islands as living laboratories where we can learn more about what makes Mississippi River habitat more climate-resilient. 

Each island's relative isolation affords a unique opportunity, making it a perfect place to experiment and investigate the establishment and growth of plant communities, and their effects on wildlife and other ecological processes.

With over 50 island-building projects along the Mississippi River over the last 30 or so years, we know the Corps can create healthy islands for our waters and wildlife. What we don't know is how climate change will impact them. 

Lab partners

As of winter 2020, the Corps had entered the project design and implementation phases, with island construction slated to begin as soon as fall 2020. But it will take more than a year to build the seven islands, providing plenty of time to create detailed plans for the vegetation and habitat envisioned for each one. 

FMR ecologists (including the author of this blog post) met with Corps biologists in March 2020. In addition to suggesting different seed mixes and planting plans, we offered our support to plan and test various combinations of plant species with an eye towards climate change.

We look forward to additional meetings with Corps staff throughout the island-building project, and also hope to loop in other partners to help with research and monitoring. 

The results could provide important insights for not only FMR, but for all land managers and researchers striving to restore and protect our plant and animal communities in our changing climate.

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