The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul district has been working toward improving Pigs Eye Lake in St. Paul since 2015. Now, seven years later, they’ve used dredge material from the Mississippi River to almost complete the first of seven artificial islands in the middle of the lake — an environmental boon, according to the Army Corps, for the eroded shoreline, as well as for turtle and shorebird habitat.
But a vocal group of river advocates have called the islands a bust, and not just because of aesthetic changes to Pigs Eye. They’ve questioned the environmental quality of the dredge sands taken from the river corridor around Hastings and called for greater city oversight.
A key public hearing on a proposed stop work order, which began this month before the St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals, is scheduled to wrap up Monday, Aug. 22.
The project, situated in the Mississippi River wetlands south of downtown, will cost roughly $15.6 million and is expected to be completed by October 2025.
The Corps of Engineers, working with other state and federal agencies, is responsible for maintaining navigation channels along the Mississippi from Minneapolis to St. Louis. The depth of the river must be at least 9 feet in order for barges to safely pass through certain parts of the river, and it is a routine project to take the extra dredge to maintain those depth levels, said Patrick Moes, deputy public affairs chief.
Additionally, having been assessed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Pigs Eye Lake is defined as hypereutrophic, meaning the water produces a high amount of biological productivity. This worsens the water quality, posing a threat to plant and animal habitats.
“The waves that are generated by the wind are blowing across these big, long lake areas, and the shallow water makes the waves stir up the sediments as the waves go crashing against the shoreline,” said Aaron McFarlane, biologist for the Army Corps. “We’re hoping these islands are going to break the wind up, creating these little sheltered areas.”
The damage done to the shoreline also impacts the plants and animals that call Pigs Eye home. Judging from aerial imagery dating to around 1951, Pigs Eye Lake has lost over 100 acres of shoreline since then, McFarlane said. These islands will “protect some of the shoreline area as well as the wetland plants … and add to the habitat value there” for animals such as turtles during their nesting season and various shore birds, he said.
The use of dredge material has been questioned by members of the advocacy group “Friends of Pigs Eye Lake.” At a St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals hearing held Aug. 8, members of the advocacy group gathered to testify against the project after their stop-work request, filed on June 10, was appealed by the city.
“The public has been ignored,” said longtime East Side advocate Tom Dimond, a leader of the Friends group. Dimond and other members expressed concern about the city’s involvement – or lack thereof – in the project.
“If you don’t have any hearings, the public has no opportunity to speak about the impacts that are involved. And one of them is pollution,” Dimond said. “There’s a high level of pollutants and they’re dumping it into our park. … But we didn’t have a meeting about this because we’re told it’s not in the jurisdiction of the city.”
The “ordinary high water level” mark also plays an important role in his objections. The DNR, through a public waters work permit, has jurisdiction over the Pigs Eye Lake islands project rather than the city of St. Paul or Ramsey County, in part because structures built within the lake’s basin sit below the mark, according to city staff.
Because the islands are visibly emerging from public waters, Dimond said the islands are being built above the ordinary high water level mark and therefore the project should be regulated by the city, meaning the public should have greater say.
As a result of the limited oversight, Dimond said island construction has not been properly vetted for flood plain and “critical area” requirements that govern development along the Mississippi River. The latter would trigger a city-driven site plan review and a grading permit review.
The Board of Zoning Appeals plans to take up the issue again at its Monday, Aug. 22 meeting, when DNR employees will make their final presentations to the board. The meeting begins at 3 p.m. at St. Paul City Hall, 15 W. Kellogg Blvd., room 330.