A 19-acre property with an important role in keeping the river clear for barges is on track to see $1.3 million in improvements by next fall, bringing a silver lining to a year of challenges for river navigation.
“We are hoping to keep this a sustainable site,” said Linda Loomis, district administrator with The Lower Minnesota Watershed District.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers annually dredges around 60,000 cubic yards of river material from the 9-foot navigational channel and the private slips of Cargill, CHS and Savage Riverport. Since its establishment in 1960, the watershed district has been responsible for storing and figuring out what to do with the resulting pile of sediment.
The dredge material dries out along the banks of the Minnesota River on the Vernon Avenue site, purchased from Cargill in 2006. Then the watershed district finds buyers, typically construction companies looking for fill, or carries it to the landfill.
In 2014, the site neared capacity with 190,000 cubic yards of material. Loomis said today’s construction market is robust and district has been able to sell materials regularly and pay for its operations.
The planned improvements will reconfigure the site’s three storage areas and add permanent berms around each site. Loomis said this will help move materials in and out of the site, make it more durable and improve the drying process.
The Savage City Council unanimously approved the plans on Aug. 12.
The site is located in the floodway district, and engineers on the project confirmed the berms won’t make flooding worse for other properties. The operation’s previous permits required the watershed district to move the materials when a flood is coming, but Loomis said it wasn’t a practical plan and it had never been done.
In 2017, the watershed district received $960,000 from the Legislature to go toward the $1.3 million improvement project. Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, carried the legislation.
Hall said the channel plays a vital role in the transportation system, and barge traffic is “a lot safer and a lot cheaper” than other modes of transportation. He said he hopes to also see improvements to Highway 13 in the future with removing some traffic lights and adding overpasses.
‘A challenging year’
Dredging brings its own set of variables to the web of challenges faced annually by those who operate and depend on barge traffic.
Sediment is increasing, Loomis said, because of increased rainfall and the farming of corn, soybeans and other crops that increase the flow of water to tributaries and the rivers and cause faster erosion.
This year, flooding downstream on the Mississippi River delayed Savage-bound barges until July.
High water also means dredging operations haven’t happened this year, said Greg Oberle, the Savage terminal manager for CHS. However, he said, the dredging itself has little impact on their operations in the face of the real problem, flooding.
Loomis said dredging might take place in September when the water levels are lower. Last year, Corps of Engineers were pulled off the river because of high water before completing the task, she said.
Patrick Moes, a spokesman for the St. Paul district of the Corps of Engineers, said severe flooding brought sediment into unexpected areas and forced crews to return to areas that had already been dredged.
“We are just putting fires out,” he said.
He added dredging needs to happen throughout the entire system all the way down to New Orleans, and the Corps is trying to maximize what can be done with limited resources. He’s unsure when crews will make it to the Minnesota River in Savage.
”With respect to dredging, take normal and throw it out the window,” he said.