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Evolution of a new approach on how engineers design

Published Feb. 22, 2012
Members of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers look at aerial maps of the Mississippi River while conducting a tour to see the island creation process in action.

Members of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers look at aerial maps of the Mississippi River while conducting a tour to see the island creation process in action.

District staff gathered near Brownsville, Minn., Aug. 30, to highlight and dedicate the completion of a 3,000-acre environmental project along the Mississippi River in Pool 8. Completed as a cooperative effort among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources and the public; the Pool 8 project is part of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration - Environmental Management Program.

District staff gathered near Brownsville, Minn., Aug. 30, to highlight and dedicate the completion of a 3,000-acre environmental project along the Mississippi River in Pool 8. Completed as a cooperative effort among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources and the public; the Pool 8 project is part of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration - Environmental Management Program.

View from the Wisconsin bluff of Island L1 under construction. Once completed, the new island will help protect an existing island, while the backwater area between the islands will provide new habitat for wildlife.

View from the Wisconsin bluff of Island L1 under construction. Once completed, the new island will help protect an existing island, while the backwater area between the islands will provide new habitat for wildlife.

St. Paul District Corps staff meet with the contractor and project partners Aug. 11, 2015, during the weekly progress meeting for the Harper’s Slough project. The Harper’s Slough Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Project, located within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, was planned and designed under the authority of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program. It will protect five existing islands and construct an additional seven islands using material from the backwater and main channel. The program emphasizes habitat rehabilitation and enhancement projects and long-term resource monitoring. Project component includes dredging backwater areas and channels, constructing dikes, creating and stabilizing islands and controlling side channel flows and water levels. Once the project is completed, the project will be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who manages the refuge.

St. Paul District Corps staff meet with the contractor and project partners Aug. 11, 2015, during the weekly progress meeting for the Harper’s Slough project. The Harper’s Slough Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Project, located within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, was planned and designed under the authority of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program. It will protect five existing islands and construct an additional seven islands using material from the backwater and main channel. The program emphasizes habitat rehabilitation and enhancement projects and long-term resource monitoring. Project component includes dredging backwater areas and channels, constructing dikes, creating and stabilizing islands and controlling side channel flows and water levels. Once the project is completed, the project will be turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who manages the refuge.

A temporary end to design and construction activities in Pool 8 will occur this summer as the Corps focuses on other areas of the Upper Mississippi River, including Pool 9, said Novak. The success of the Pool 8 project and other EMP projects have paved the way for new designs and construction techniques. 

Hydraulics

The Pool 8 Islands project created a unique challenge for St. Paul District engineers, said Jon Hendrickson, engineering and construction. One of the first EMP habitat projects for the district, partners had to work together to design a specific project that had never been attempted before. “We were told to fix a problem but were not given any structure on how to go about fixing it,” said Hendrickson, who has been working on the islands since the beginning of planning. “But, people knew what we were doing,” said Hendrickson, “and this encouraged us to do better. We were always getting valuable input from other agencies and the public.”
From a hydraulics standpoint, he said, it was clear to all the partners that there was a major problem with water movement. The latest technology and models were used in project design to depict how water moved through the main channel, backwaters and floodplains and how the flows and existing structures would be impacted through island construction. Information from other large ecosystems has also contributed to project designs.

It was a form of “adaptive engineering” that the district was doing, said Hendrickson. We started with historical river conditions that showed where previous island chains had existed. Through these historical records, logical locations for island restoration and creation were able to be determined. 

Construction
The unique challenges did not end with the design phase but continued as construction began. The first stage of the Pool 8 Islands Project Phase III began in 2006. “Overall, it was enjoyable from a construction standpoint,” said Scott Baker, engineering and construction. “With separate phases of construction you got to see wildlife come to finished areas and watch the habitat change and respond to the newly constructed islands,” he said. 

Baker said he is looking forward to construction work begining this spring. He has already prepared the contract specifications and is now in the process of reviewing the plans for constructing the Capoli Slough habitat project. “Not everyone can do the construction work,” he said. “It is very complex because of all the restrictions and exclusion zones that not only protect existing resources but also shorten the normal construction season by months. Surveys need to be very accurate so money is not spent where it is not needed.” 

Previous contractors have handled the constraints well, and it shows, he said. The last two phases of the Pool 8 construction were completed under budget by contractors and are already showing positive habitat response and are getting positive reviews from partnering agencies and the public, said Baker. 

It is a “continual lessons learned” approach that needs to be taken, said Baker. The collection of these lessons through trial and error has led to an evolution in engineering techniques during the past 25 years. 

Novak said the lessons were documented with the preperation of the 2006 Environmental Design Handbook. Since then, there has been even more information gained and an updated handbook is expected to be prepared by the end of the year, which includes how engineering techniques and features contribute to biological goals, he said. 

The vegetation guys
In the last two years, 10,000 tree seedlings have been planted on the Pool 8 islands and 5,000 more are planned for this spring, said Randy Urich, natural resources. The plantings were completed through a combined effort of the district, the USFWS and volunteers.

Urich said new approaches were taken in developing the planting plan and have resulted in a positive response. The plan experimented with the multiple elevations present on each island. Diverse trees that consisted of different species with different flood capacities were used. For example, red oak grows best in areas where there is less flooding, while black willow grows best in areas where there is yearly flooding. The end goal was to create a “significant bottomland hardwood forest that would, in combination with engineering techniques, stabilize the island,” said Urich. The plan also provides food and shelter to wildlife.

The partners
From the beginning, an interagency planning team was formed to plan and design EMP projects. This team included people from several agencies with knowledge of the river. Each person had different goals, experiences and philosophies, said Jim Nissen, Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, or UMRRNW, district manager in La Crosse, Wis. 

The project required everyone to work together to get all the goals met, he said, which often meant making things more complicated as the construction increased in size and scope. 

For example, Nissen said, The recent Pool 8 construction included four different construction areas spread across 3,000 acres.
Tim Yager, UMRRNW deputy refuge manager, said, there needed to be a team approach, and the partners frequently did not agree; but if the goal was kept in sight, the disagreements often made a better project in the end. That goal includes having the USFWS operate and maintain the projects that have been built on their property.

The public
The EMP would not have had the success it has had without public involvement, said Nissen. In fact, the public was instrumental in getting an environmental management program started by bringing the issue of habitat loss to everyone’s attention and then pushing for action. As a result, the public has been involved in every district from the start.

For the pool 8 project, the public was engaged ifrom the beginning, said Powell. The most recognizable public support is through the physical use of the islands and people providing positive comments about improved fishing and improved wildlife use, said Novak. The EMP is a benefit to everyone, habitat and people, and this is being recognized by everyone. 

“You don’t really think about it when you start out,” said Hendrickson, but at a Brownsville, Minn., public meeting for the Pool 8 Islands, “the positive impact was fully recognized when people gave a standing ovation for the successful work that was done.” For Hendrickson, “[The program] is an amazing experience.”