Third Generation Minnesota Farm in Jeopardy of US Army Corps of Engineer Plans

Third Generation Minnesota Farm in Jeopardy of US Army Corps of Engineer Plans

KELLOGG — “If this land is destroyed, it’s forever.” Willard Drysdale does not want to see his farmland destroyed. But if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers follows through with its plan, that, Drysdale said, is exactly what will happen.

The Corps has developed a new 40-year dredge material management plan for Lower Pool 4, which runs from Lock and Dam No. 4 north past Wabasha to where the Chippewa River empties into the Mississippi River from Wisconsin.

A major portion of that plan – more than 60 percent of the land to be acquired — includes Drysdale’s 415-acre family farm. The Corps wants 298 of those acres, something Drysdale calls prime, flat row-cropping land, to become the site where material dredged from lower Pool No. 4 is stored for the next 40 years.

The Corps also is looking to acquire another parcel north of Kellogg, several parcels in Wabasha where the dredge material would be loaded for transport and two large parcels in Wisconsin. All that to keep clear the 9-foot navigation channel that runs from Lock and Dam No. 4 to the Chippewa River inlet on the Wisconsin side.

“Most of the dredge material in the (St. Paul) district comes from the lower area in Pool No. 4,” said Elliott Stefanik, a biologist and chief of the environmental planning section for the district. Most of that silt can be found between lock and dam No. 4 and the Chippewa River, the source of the vast majority of that silt.

The Corps cuts about 270,000 cubic yards of dredge material from that stretch annually. During the 40-year life of the management plan, that would be 10.7 million cubic yards.

Permanent dredged material placement sites previously used in Lower Pool 4 have reached capacity, the Corps stated in its plan outline. Furthermore, existing island transfer sites have temporary capacity for less than 10 years of dredging, and material placed on those islands needs to be offloaded to permanent sites.

Drysdale said he understands the Corps needs to keep the channel open, and it needs a place to store dredge material. He just asks them to look elsewhere. “I told the fella it’s not for sale,” Drysdale said, referring to representatives from the Corps.

Comment period

Currently, the dredge material management plan draft is in a 30-day comment period that began May 11 and ends June 9. The Corps will collect comments via email, phone calls and letters during this time from landowners, residents, groups such as each state’s department of natural resources and county officials.

Once all that feedback is collected, the Corps will review it to see if it either needs to make minor changes to the plan, major changes or move forward with the draft plan as is. George Stringham, a public affairs specialist with the Corps, said taking the plan back before the public seems unlikely unless there are major changes. “If the modification is large enough, it’s certainly reasonable there would be another public meeting,” he said. “But it’d have to be a major change to the proposed plan.”

As it stands, Stefanik said, sites such as the Drysdale farm were selected because the Corps did not have a lot of other options. Finding other sites with enough land to store 40 years of silt would mean talking to other farm owners.

Drysdale suggested some of the wetlands along the river, but Stefanik said there are problems with using established wetlands. First, the Corps would need to prove it is imperative to use the wetlands and no other practical alternative is available. Then, the Corps would need to pay for wetland remediation to replace the wetland areas being used. That, Stefanik said, is not cost effective. “The environmental requirements we work with constrain us,” he said. “That’s one of the primary reasons why we’ve ended up where we’re at.”

In fact, Stefanik said if the plan is not adopted, the Corps would need to take emergency actions for its dredge material, which likely means dumping it in the river. That comes with its own set of environmental consequences.

The family farm

“It’s all I’ve ever known,” said Chelsey Drysdale, Willard’s daughter who hopes one day to be the fourth-generation Drysdale to own the farm. “It’s what my whole future was going to be.”

The family has been farming the flat land about two miles north of Kellogg since 1939, when Willard’s grandfather started farming and raising cattle. Today, the land still is used for row crops and cattle. The Corps plans to cover it during the course of 40 years with about 15 feet of sand, she said.

That would be 15 feet of dredge material covering her family’s history. “I’ve watched as my dad calved cows, planted corn and hay, harvested the hay and worked hard every day,” Chelsey said. “We had the very first milk parlor in Wabasha County.”

The Corps’ intentions for their land came as a shock, she said. While the public comment period for the draft plan began May 11, the Drysdales did not hear about it until May 15, when a letter and a packet showed up on their doorstep explaining the plan and how their farmland was a vital part of that plan.

Since May 15, the family has been fighting to save their farm. Willard said he hopes to get 500 people to comment on the plan. He suspects those comments will be negative. “We’ve visited with a lot of people,” he said. “We haven’t had anyone who’s in support of this.”

Battle Lines

Chelsey has been busy writing lawmakers, from locals such as state legislators Barb Haley and Mike Goggins to federal lawmakers including U.S. Reps. Tim Walz and Jason Lewis and Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue have received missives as well. All talk about the history of the family on the land and their unwillingness to move.

Stefanik said he understands the Drysdales are hesitant, but the Corps needs a deposit site. “We don’t want to take anyone’s land against their wishes,” he said. However, he added, “Eminent domain is our absolute last resort. It’s a tool in our toolbox, and we don’t want to do that if we don’t have to.”

The Drysdales aren’t without their backers. Wabasha County Administrator Michael Plante sent a letter to the Corps outlining the county’s concerns, including the loss of valuable farmland and the effect that would have on the county’s tax base. “It appears that very little thought was given to the impact that the project would have on Wabasha County, the cities located within the county or the citizens of the area,” Plante wrote.

Plante suggested the Corps had ignored many undeveloped areas and rejected “prior mining” sites as possible destinations for the dredge material. He also suggested the Corps had overlooked less developed areas available in Wisconsin.

Another problem Plante sited was the truck traffic coming through Wabasha to transport the dredge material from the river to the Drysdale farm. The plan, he said, would include a 75-day trucking period each year, and the trucks’ hauling material would represent as much as 19.5 percent of the traffic along that route during that time. “Such a significant increase will have an adverse impact on road quality and could lead to a greater risk of additional accidents and congestion,” he wrote.

For Drysdale, trucking and taxes all are part of the problem, but it all pales in comparison to what would be lost for his daughter and for the land. “It’s her that’ll be hurt the most by this,” he said. “They’re ruining a productive piece of agricultural land for eternity.”

By: Brian Todd
Source: Post-Bulletin (Rochester, MN)

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