Professor Fremling talked with reporter Dan Olson and described how he became interested in the Mississippi. Fremling, a biology professor at Winona State College in Southeastern Minnesota, has explored and researched the Mississippi, and his firsthand knowledge of the waterway has made him a respected commentator on the life and health of the river.
Read the Text Transcription of the Audio.
Well, I spent my boyhood in Brainerd Minnesota and grew up on the Mississippi River after leaving there. I went to school in St. Cloud and get on the Mississippi River later on. I spent four years at Iowa State College in Ames Iowa, but I did all of my research on the Mississippi River at Keokuk Iowa later. I taught at the itascan biological station for the University of Minnesota and I spent quite a bit of time at Cape Girardeau, Missouri to so I've been up and down the river a lot and during my lifetime. What is it about the river that sparked your interest in well a river is in an extremely fascinating thing to study because it's it's constantly changing where I'll make changes to but the state the case for a river or lake is Mortal a lake is born and goes through Youth and middle-age in old age and finally dies.Where a river is in Mortal river flows forever? No matter what we do to it. The river will be there at night and I think that in the future our rivers are going to hold more promise than many of our Lakes because a river will we can even cleanse itself after a man has defiled and there are other reasons too. But those are some of the main ones Why in your mind is the Mississippi River so important to the United States or the, Mississippi? At first was exploited as a water highway to the Sea where we can bring trade goods into the interior of the North American continent to exploit it quickly by water much more easily than we could Overland by wagon or some other. So for transportation, it was very important and it still is for transportation. But the Mississippi River is also extremely important for recreation and and truly is a multiple use resource. It's even use for water power in a couple of instances, but Mania transportation and Recreation and the two are and those two things are coming into conflict more and more. I'd like to talk a little bit about that conflict a little bit later. The first of all I'd like to ask your opinion about the health of the Mississippi River. How do you feel the the river is getting along now as we approach our 200th birthday in this country and I suppose our two hundred years of used by the white man. It's always dangerous to generalize but I'll I'll attempt to do so, I would say in general from its source at Lake Itasca. Do the Twin Cities area? The Mississippi river is in very good shape with minor exceptions. At the Twin City and at the Twin Cities that the quality of the water in the Mississippi River takes a drastic drop and even though great strides have been made in the metropolitan area to add to step up the quality of wastewater treatment. Still the step-ups and waste bother wastewater treatment have them completely offset the increases in population within the area. So the net gain as great as you might think the Twin Cities poor as thousands and thousands millions of gallons of sewage into the Mississippi River daily and still in the Twin Cities. We have combined sewers that dumping raw sewage on occasion when there is rapid run off on the streets because they are combined sewer that can't handle the combined load up sewage water and rainwater. So during High rainfall there is still raw sewage going into the Mississippi River. But the Mississippi begins to cleanse itself immediately as soon as the river passes the Twin Cities and by the time we get to Red Wing the river is getting in pretty good shape, then farther down Lake Pepin acts of settling area on for I hate to say that all the time of day, but it does it actually just settling your rate for a lot of the pollutants from the Twin Cities, which have been recycled maybe a couple times on their way to Lake Pepin. But then the river is diluted my clean water from the st. Croix in from the Chippewa. So that by the time you get to the foot of the Lake Pepin, the Mississippi river is in pretty good shape and it's I'd say it would be safe for Water contact sports like swimming in water skiing and so on and it remains that way all the way down through Minnesota and the northern part of Iowa and then it begins to degrade again, the river becomes overwhelmed by the combined pollutants of the Quad Cities area and so on my own feeling is that when it by the time the Illinois River runs into it, the river is pretty bad when it leaves, Saint Louis. It's not much River anymore. It's a big ditch. It's not damned up below st. Louis, but it's a big ditch that runs to the Gulf of Mexico and has levings on either side and then It's not much. What's the caliber then of the river life? What's the quality of river life below? Let's say St. Louis. Irino. No the river. Corley study there and it's a given example the ultimate example, I guess would be what it's like, what would the river bottom be like at New Orleans? I don't think anyone knows. Because how do you study a river this 200 ft deep and it is at New Orleans that's flowing at two and a half miles an hour. I don't know of any that I could drop down and resample the bottom of it so I don't know much about the river below st. Louis above st. Louis. I feel comfortable though. I don't There's a great deal of controversy about what's happening to the Mississippi River through the manipulation of man. We know for example that the Corps of Engineers and Barge interests. For example have generally been on one side hoping to dredge the Mississippi deeper create a better wider and deeper Channel. If you will for barge traffic on the other side have been the people who maintained at the habitat area must be maintained. Could you give us a could you sketch and some of the background of that Conflict for us? Some of their listeners may not be familiar with this Lock and Dam system on the river. So let me maybe explain that little bit the Mississippi River above St. Louis originally was too shallow for a very deep draft boats and over the year. The river has been modified to make the channel deeper and deeper and by various means but in the 1930s to make the river nine feed need the Corps of Engineers was authorized by Congress to build a series of navigation damned which made the river into a series of lakes with a river flowing to the lakes and each of the dams ranges in height from only 5 feet make up to 40 feet in height and it makes the river into a series of aquatic steps. 9 with a minimum depth of 9 ft deep in the channel. Building the dam has been not enough to maintain at 9 for death. However, the car is also had to dredge the channel to keep it 9 feet. So the combination of impounding it and dredging it that has made the name for Channel. The impounding has done some remarkable things for the river some good some very good things. It made more water surface per linear mile. They're just more water now because it's it's wine by the river at the in southern Minnesota is much wider for example behind the dams and it is at st. Louis or New Orleans where it isn't damn down. So we have more water for a linear mile as a consequence. We have more pounds of fish for a linear mile. Then we had then when we when the white man came and the river. As it flows along the border of Southeastern Minnesota is a is a resource that not many minnesotans really appreciate and they fail understand. I think that they're for walleyes and saw Sagar Sand Pike Northern Pike and crappies and Sunfish and so on a tremendous resource, very fertile High number of pounds of fish per acre and there been other Goods associated with that 9 4 channel project like deep in the river. So people can water ski so people can do pleasure boating maybe at the Corps of Engineers with their damn. Does he even made duck hunting much much better than it used to be how long the river But there's been some real bad too. And the biggest bad I guess associated with it is thus and it's constantly dreads out of the river. The car has run out of places to put saying I guess that's the simplest way to say it and the Beautiful marshes that were created by building the dams in the thirties are now being filled with sand and the impoundments themselves active catch basins for soil and sand that washing from poorly managed Farmland in from Highway construction and other things so that in summer in the car created a recreational Paradise when they made the Lock and Dam system, but the recreational Paradise is dying because of encroachment of sand and that's our basic problem. What do you do with all that sand? No, I think your work cut your work out of Winona State College indicates that there's Reason for Hope. But before we get to that, I'd like to delve a little bit more into some of the management techniques. You mentioned management teks management techniques of people who live along the river. What do you have in mind do you mean for saving the river? well the hardcore environmentalists have Pat answers for the problem and and they're they're very simplistic approach would be when asked what can we do to say the river is blow up the dance or something while I think that's silly you can't block the dams and dams are there and they serve a function and other vital for for transportation and so on likewise another approach is that you cannot if there's if Accord wretches and paste and make them take it out of the river valley up to the top of the bluff or something, but get it out of the river. That's fine. But I I personally don't feel that energy wise we can afford the energy expenditure to take the sand from the river up 500 feet of bluff to get rid of a blood or even to get rid of us. And are you going to take it completely out of the fun plant? That's a partial answering sand should be taken out anytime that it's feasible when someone needs the sand. Forgot I say give it to them but there are some places in the river where there will have to be in my opinion Central disposal site, but I don't think I have to be so bad I Envision a central disposal site as being an area that's rip wrapped with rock the retina Rock strategically placed so that it creates smallmouth bass habitat and channel catfish spawning habitat. The saint of the rip rap rock and enclosure would be filled with sand which would be protected them from flood the sand pile very high. Maybe maybe we'll make this thing on mine or mountain in a 75 you higher so would be capped with muck from silted in back Waters and Mark has high in phosphorus and high in nitrogen will make the sand in repairing and we'll meet maybe management by fire with my burning the Prairie as we manage Prairie is all over the world and create wildlife habitat. In doing so so that we would make an island in the river that would be suitable for camping that wouldn't have vegetation on an above flood level for nesting Ducks. So we create duck habitat and duck food in the form of terrestrial vegetation a multiple use resource created out of a commodity that no one wants and I think we will see these things in the in the future and what you described as I understand it is isn't it romantic Vision on your part you've done some of this work cuz I understand with taking money from the back Waters and spreading it on Sand well, it's kind of a romantic idea in one respect that we're not capable. I don't have the capability to make one of those yet, but I will suggest that and and hope that we won't be able to do the research necessary to do a demonstration project. But we have on a small scale revegetated areas already and our method was very low cost because it was by volunteer I have getting students to volunteer and the students help me. I help them vegetate a small part of a sand Island where we went into the backwaters where there was a heavy accumulation of muck is nutrient-rich muck and we carry it out with buckets, which is very very hard work and carried it up the sand and dumped it up mix it in with a soil and seated it and fertilize a little bit to make up for a potassium deficiency and mustard and in a year. We had a good stabilization of the sand and we prevent the sand from blowing into the back Waters in by stabilizing and we also hold it better against the onrushing floods in the spring by stabilizing. And our results are so promising that I think we could do it on a large scale. We did we plan to stuff in August, which is a terrible time to plant anyting on Sand it's a hundred and twenty or more in degrees Fahrenheit burn your feet. Do you have to wear shoes when we planning? So we overcame some very severe obstacles. What about residents along the river Farmers people who live in towns of window? For example, a Twin Cities residents contribute significantly to the pollution of the Mississippi River, but what about the management practices of farmers and others who live along the river are they major contributions to problems of river pollution? I hate to say it but the farmers are a major source. I hate to say that really because over the years. I've worked with soil conservation and fire with fire Murs a lot. And I have a lot of respect for the farmers and for the problems they encounter and they do have problems with the weather and everything else. But nevertheless. I think it's only fair to state that in recent years. I've been appalled at the regression that I've been seeing and Soil Conservation. We're typically the grandfather plowed up and down the hill and learned you shouldn't do that. You should Contour strip cropping do all of these things and do not make Terraces and so on cover crops rotate crops or whatever in the father carry than on and now I see the grandson. In his race to make a buck and he needs money to I recognize but in the race to make money because of the financial buying the farmers in he's plowing land that his father would never reply. He's grazing hillsides that he should not very typical one would be the man. We have a lot of cattle and suddenly the price of feed grain went way up and couldn't afford to feed the cat Ali had so what did you do with the cattle? Let him run on the side of the hill or through the woods or whatever and this poor Land Management is seen in soil erosion. We had a flood on the Whitewater River Inn in Winona County just recently stayed in the little town of Elma and we consider that an act of God. Well, it was to the effect that we had a heavy rain but I can't believe the devastation would have been as bad and the land been under proper soil management. It's it's terrible. It's not only the fire kicks and off the side of the hill in this feat. It's every every road builders that isn't careful when he's doing construction. It's the Suburban housing track developer Man by his mere presence in the in the valley hastens the Relentless cycle of erosion. Returning to the issue of the channel in the Mississippi River that barge traffic requires to move up and down the river providing major source of Commerce for the United States. Now, there's talk, of course to the 12 and 15 ft deep channel in the river and I'd like to get your opinion as to how you feel about expanding the depth of the Mississippi River barge traffic and how you think that will affect the river. This is a very complex issue right. Now. The river is 9 ft deep and the barges can carry 9-foot cargo bar that can transport 9ft cargo barges up the river if the river were made 12 ft deep. They'd be able to haul 33% more cargo with the same crew and the same toe bone so they could talk good much less expensively if they could increase the depth of the river but increasing the depth, could cause some severe environmental problem one would be well there two ways to make the River Deep one is to dredge it deeper if you dredge at 3 ft deeper. What do you do with the sand? The sand is already a problem. This would aggravate the problem. Another way to do it would be to raise the river level 3 ft or combination of the two dread you have when they have feet raised for impounding a foot of 3 feet has some scary things associated with it and I doubt if that would even be done in the in the form of possibly aggravating flooding. That's a long story. But it I think it could and the other thing that people worry about with it with a 12-4 channel, is that it would Call bigger or a deeper toes on at the toes may be harder to manage. There may be more accidents or that if an accident does occur the consequences of the accident would be greater an oil spill. That's a barn full of oil encounters Wing Dan and tears a hole in the barn. We have 33% more oil. That's what some of those are some of the Rings the most controversial thing is the development of Lock and Dam 26 in Alton, Illinois, and the environmentalists. There are very concerned because they feel that they make that Lock and Dam there with the Seal of the lock the about 20 feet deep. This would make the capability of traffic on the river not 9:50, not 12:30, but 15 or more feet. And that if Lock and Dam 26 were completed. It is the bottleneck by the way on the river that that would increase traffic tremendously on the upper river. Just removing that one bottleneck because it slows traffic so much that the increased traffic on the river would cause problems. I do kind of summarize how I feel. Like I feel that the river candy man is as a multiple use resource surely. We should not stop Transportation on the river. Then the river would be a lonely place without towboats. I feel but we can't have transportation at the expense of the environment and if we work at it and use some imagination, I think we can have both and I see some promising signed Justin and with the Corps of Engineers in the past if I made if I talk like this in public Read in the past like what's a 8 years ago or so, I was chastised couple times by the Corps of Engineers for talking without facts. I don't feel I would like without facts, but they thought I was talking about facts but recently. I find the core at least in the Saint Paul District where we are much more cooperative and really they recognize they have a problem and the car itself has hired excellent research Personnel, excellent biologist to help them solve the problem and they work with us and most exciting thing. I think is the formation of a group called great which is the Great River environmental action team and the great team is made up of Representatives of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the soil conservation service the Corps of Engineers and about everyone you can name every agency that could be concerned with the river. Even the Coast Guard and great is Great River environmental action team is divided up into groups like Transportation were group new equipment groups fish and wildlife groups, and I should have mentioned the fish and wildlife service, which is involved. And they're using their combined now, I just to find techniques to rectify the damage that has been done to see if we can slow down the rate of degradation or to stop it or even to reverse it and to make the the river a better place than it is and there right now there is research funded and by migrate to find out what can we done and at Winona State College and I st. Mary's College Winona. We have a very active program on the river. We have 20 people working full-time this summer on the Weaver bottoms Define to diagnose sickness of Old Man River and when we have diagnosed the sickness, then we will will prescribe what should be done and hopefully we'll see things that will there be a new channels made in the recreation areas in the next few years. Some portions will be blocked if the conducts blood water and silt when it shouldn't and we will see something. Things happening in the next few years Calvin crumbling professor of biology at Winona State College. Thank you. I'm Daniels.