Minnesota River bank conservation project completed by Upper Sioux

Kyle Klausing
Granite Falls Advocate Tribune

    The Upper Sioux Community recently completed a large Minnesota River streambank conservation project at a troublesome right-angle bend located just east of their Wacipi grounds. The project is in the same location where a previous Army Corps of Engineers project was completed in the 1980’s and is an important step in slowing down ongoing soil erosion along the contours of this critical waterway. The project was undertaken in partnership with engineering designs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and project assistance from the Yellow Medicine Soil and Water Conservation District.     

    The newly completed structure consists of reinforced steel piling and rock. According to USC Environmental Director Amanda Wold, 216 square feet of sheet piling, 200 cubic yards of Riprap, and 500 cubic yards of earth were utilized in the construction of this dike repair, while geotextiles, coconut fiber, and strategic seeding provide additional bulwarks against riverbank erosion.     

    “The reason we had to do this project is because of changes in the Minnesota River,” Wold said. “The Upper Sioux Community’s landscape as well as the properties adjacent to the Community have experienced significant changes over time. Extensive lush native prairies once covered southwestern Minnesota whereas the landscape today is dominated by the agricultural industry and its resulting anthropogenic activities. The Minnesota River and its tributaries continue to experience degradation in both water quality and ecological health due in large part to sediment loading, nutrient pollution, and elevated bacteria levels. Increased erosion along the stream bank, increased flow of the water due to artificial drainage and large rain events compounded with the reduction of natural wetlands and lack of water storage on the landscape have changed the river basin to a huge extent and created a lot of problems along the Minnesota River.”     Wold also highlighted the need to address the water entering the drainage system from agricultural drain tiles. “Farmers want to get water from their fields into the drainage system and through ditches as quickly as possible. But where does that water go? Into the Minnesota River and its tributaries. There has been more rain, more drainage, and not enough places to store water and this is creating problems like these streambank breaches along the Minnesota River. This idea of moving the water off the land as quickly as possible and unchecked also causes more intense flood events. But if the ditch systems metered the flow of the water through control structures this would slow the flow of tiled water and would help mitigate some of the problems that we are seeing within the river basin.” This type of “metering the flow” of water is already practiced in the American Southwest.   

     There is a consensus among environmental scientists that as a result of modern farming practices (like tiling and drainage ditches), the disappearance of traditional cover crops, and human-made climate change, the volume of water entering the Minnesota River has steadily increased over time. This translates into more severe flooding and greater soil erosion during high-water times. Currently, about eight homes located within the borders of the USC are impacted by seasonal flooding while regular and large-scale wetland basin flooding has become a new normal. There are also concerns that, because the Minnesota River serves as part of the official border for the USC, an increasingly erratic meander could potentially cut off land and change the borders of the reservation.     

    In discussing the current waterway problems created by humans, Upper Sioux Community Tribal Chairman Kevin Jensvold reflected on our deeper relationship with nature that is all too often overlooked or ignored. “We refer to this Earth as a relative,” the Chairman said, drawing on Dakota understandings of our ecosystem. “The river systems and water systems are much like a human being’s blood stream. It carries the life force from here to there, and what we’ve chosen to do as human beings is to alter that natural course for our own benefit.” Chairman Jensvold also lamented the tendency “to strip the land of the resources that were given to us by our Creator and to change the natural relationship that humans are supposed to have to Earth. And that area there (referring to the breaches along the streambank) is just one of the small symptoms of what has occurred over generations.”   

      “Society as a whole is to blame,” Chairman Jensvold added. “We are all dependent upon the resources we have right now and if there is a better way to do things to protect our resources, we should also look at that. But it is simply an acceleration of geologic time, and our river is being negatively impacted - pure and simple.”     

    Looking ahead, Chairman Jensvold said that there is a plan in the works to make additional improvements at this site sometime in the next few years. “The Army Corps has initiated a new project and they are doing a feasibility study and they have resources allocated to this project,” he explained. “Hopefully, this will be an enhancement to what we have already done here to better protect that corner.”     According to Director Wold, the Army Corps’ feasibility study is expected to be completed later this year. “Our goal would be to move into construction in 2022,” she said. One potential hang-up for construction is the unpredictability of the Minnesota River. “This year we had ideal construction conditions and we were able to complete two projects along the bank, whereas in the last five years, we would not have been able to do that.”   

     While Chairman Jensvold expressed his enthusiasm for the project’s completion, he stressed that much bigger changes are needed from the surrounding area to help restore the health of the Minnesota River.     Though riverbank conservation projects like the one undertaken by the Upper Sioux Community are important steps in remedying specific instances of human-caused environmental destruction, it remains to be seen if they will be enough to stem the larger ecological challenges we all ultimately face together. “Overall, I believe that we’re past that point of being able to fix it,” Chairman Jensvold said bluntly. “I don’t see the ability to do anything other than to defend our assets and our land as best we can. It’s unfortunate that this is the ‘normal’ we live in. We’re simply frustrated in how the river is saddened by how things are. The land is a relative, and we’ve damaged her so severely that she is responding accordingly - dying in front of our eyes.”