The Upper Mississippi River near Wabasha, Minnesota, is traditionally quiet during the winter as the river freezes, halting large tow boats shipping grains, fertilizer, and other bulk commodities.

While the river remains frozen this year, albeit less than normal ice thicknesses, there is a lot of activity going on within Wabasha to help ensure the navigation channel will open this spring. The City of Wabasha and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, are working under a historic agreement to remove around 135,000 cubic yards of dredged sand at a temporary placement site to make room for future dredging activities.

The city’s contractor, Kohner Materials, hopes to move around 2,000 cubic yards of sand per day over the next 90 days or so to complete the project. Trucking operations are currently Monday–Friday during daylight hours and use U.S. Highway 61 rather than city streets. The material is being moved from the Corps of Engineers’ temporary placement site on the northside of Wabasha to an old gravel pit a mile south of there, where it will be used to reclaim the pit for potential future uses.

This work is made possible due to a Section 217 agreement between the city and the Corps of Engineers, the first of its kind for inland waters within the United States and the first time that such an agreement has been used for managing sand removed from the navigation channel.

“It’s a win-win-win for all,” said Paul Machajewski, St. Paul District dredged material manager. “The city wins by having a say where the material goes; the Corps of Engineers wins by having the ability to maintain the navigation channel; and the taxpayers benefit because it’s the least costly way to manage the sand.”

The agreement is unique in terms of paying the city a tipping fee to manage the river sand as opposed to the traditional model of having the Corps hire a contractor to move the material. This new approach allows the city to explore options that might not be cost effective from the Corps’ perspective due to a variety of reasons to including shipping costs or the amount of material that can be used at a given location.

Machajewski said the cost of transporting the material is always a major consideration for the Corps of Engineers and typically one of the larger costs associated with managing the sand. He added that the agency is always doing what they can do to reduce cost to the taxpayer while ensuring that channel maintenance activities are environmentally acceptable. He said the Corps typically removes around 250,000 cubic yards of sand from the river within the greater Wabasha area or roughly 25% of the annual dredging requirements for the agency.

Machajewski said the city’s involvement allows them to move the material to locations where they only need a small amount to raise an area out of a flood plain or fill an old gravel pit. These types of activities are typically not cost effective when managing a large amount of material but can provide great opportunities to the community on a smaller scale.

Wabasha Mayor Emily Durand said this type of partnership means so much to the city, because it affords them the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Corps of Engineers and other agencies to develop solutions that benefit the region. She said, “We all have to be aware of our authorities and be creative while understanding that sometimes we have to look for more nuanced solutions and not expect that the regular way of operating is going to get us there.”

John Friedmeyer, Wabasha Port Authority President, said the agreement is a success story for the community. He said you hear about small towns that want to have a voice on issues such as managing sand removed from the Mississippi River but thought it was never an opportunity for the city until it happened.

“It’s about the health and wellbeing, and the safety or our community,” said Friedmeyer. “With this agreement, it allows our community to be what it’s always been, but it also becomes an opportunity and an enterprise fund for the port authority that will help the community thrive into the future.”

Friedmeyer said he’s optimistic about the future of the community as he looks ahead. He added that the novel approach of the agreement between the city and the Corps of Engineers for small communities is a true success story.