Planning for McGregor Lake Habitat Restoration Project should begin this fall

McGregor Lake


By Audrey Posten


This fall the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Iowa and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources, will begin planning the McGregor Lake Habitat Restoration Project.


McGregor Lake—more commonly referred to as Horseshoe Lake—is a 200-acre backwater lake in Pool 10 of the Mississippi River near Marquette and McGregor. It also lies within the Upper Mississippi River National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.


According to the Corps of Engineers, in 1989, about 75 percent of the lake had aquatic vegetation, which creates much-needed oxygen. However, since then, both vegetation and water depth have decreased due to increased sedimentation and the erosion of the lake’s barrier islands. Overwintering areas—spots with deeper depth and more oxygen where fish spend time throughout the winter—have been lost, along with fish and other wildlife nursery habitat.


The project is being done through the Environmental Management Program, which works to lessen the damage done by the lock and dam system.


“When the lock and dam system was put in, wind erosion ate away at the islands,” explained Rich King, district manager at the McGregor District of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is a restoration project meant to reverse the damage done. It will replace the functions that have been lost.”


The proposed project will include dredging the lake and restoring or strengthening the lake’s barrier islands. New small islands will also be constructed within the lake in order to reduce wave action from the main channel, thus promoting the growth of more aquatic vegetation. 


According to the Corps, this project will provide a more diverse and productive habitat for fish, allowing them to move into and out of the lake during the winter. More aquatic vegetation will provide additional cover and food for young fish.


St. Paul District Corps of Engineers Project Manager Tom Novak said project planning should start this fall, beginning with recon and feasibility studies, which will take roughly 18 months. Some of these studies include testing the soil and water depth. Novak said a cultural historian will also be brought in to make sure the project will not disrupt an area of significant cultural or historic importance (for example, shipwrecks or Native American burial sites). A team will also check if the project is going to affect protected species like mussels or bald eagles.


“We want to make sure we don’t kill in order to save,” Novak said.


Following that 18-month period, there will be another six to eight months of developing plans and specifications. Depending upon funding, Novak said it will be at least three to five years until construction begins. Since the McGregor Lake project is smaller and less-complicated than others, Novak said the project itself should take roughly two years to complete.


The project will be split into two phases. The first phase, which will take place during the first year, will include dredging, along with island construction and restoration. The lake is currently 2.5 feet deep, but Novak said, after dredging, it would probably be between six and eight feet, deep enough for the equipment not to get hung up on, and also ideal for bluegill overwintering areas.


The second phase, occurring in the second year, includes habitat planting. Novak said the end result will be similar to the Capoli Slough Project near Lansing, which wrapped up its first phase this summer.


Novak said the Corps has roughly 10 projects—all at different stages of completion—in its queue at once. Each year biologists from different state and federal entities come to the Corps with problem areas and present a fact sheet that describes the problems. 


“We then prioritize those projects,” Novak said. “Habitat needs and costs are considered. We look at if the island loss is at such a rapid rate that it will be beyond repair if nothing’s done right away.”


A McGregor Lake fact sheet was first presented in March 2010. However, even after a project is prioritized, Novak said the Corps is always at the mercy of funding. The McGregor Lake project will cost an estimated $6,500,000, all of which will come from the federal government since the project is within the wildlife refuge. 


If the Corps continues to receive a $20 to $29 million annual budget like it has, Novak said funding should not be an issue. Even if funding comes up short, the project will still progress, just without all the bells and whistles. 


“We would just build the features that would help the most,” Novak explained. “We’ve never said we won’t build something. Environmental assessments get stale if stuff gets put off.”


Once complete, the project will have at least a 50-year life. Eventually, though, sedimentation will fill the lake in again.


“The river takes the islands over and makes them her own,” Novak said, “but, if we design correctly, and if the islands are rebuilt well, it should last longer.”


After completion, King said fish may not respond immediately.


“First, they have to find it,” he said. “That will probably take a couple years. But once they find it, they’ll use it.”


King said outdoor enthusiasts can expect more channel fishing and shallow water fishing opportunities, as well as waterfowl hunting opportunities from the islands.


Novak said hearing stories about good fishing two to four years after the project is completed really makes the job rewarding.


“I look forward to the challenge of a new place,” he said. “I haven’t been down [the river] that far much, so it will be nice to do something in Pool 10.”

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