The Weisenbecks’ 80-acre field at the junction of Highways 25 and 35 is targeted by the Army Corp of Engineers to use for sand storage.PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
The Weisenbecks’ 80-acre field at the junction of Highways 25 and 35 is targeted by the Army Corp of Engineers to use for sand storage.
NELSON, Wis. - The Weisenbeck family was thrown a curve ball on May 12 in the form of a Fed-Ex package from the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE). That package contained a plan for dredge work needing to be done on the Mississippi, and explained to this dairy farming family how it would suddenly become the focal point of their lives.
The Weisenbeck family owns about 175 of the 470 acres of land, which they must involuntarily sell to the ACE to store sand from dredging a portion of the Mississippi River. The Weisenbecks milk 1,300 cows on their dairy, Burnside Dairy, near Nelson and Durand, Wis.
"We bought his land with the assumption that we'd have it forever, to grow feed for our herd. As we've acquired land, we've added cows," said Jason Weisenbeck, who by default is fast becoming the family's expert on the situation.
Weisenbeck's farm, Burnside Dairy, is home to over 2,500 total head of livestock. The Weisenbeck family also farms 2,000 acres located between the home farm outside of Durand, and another farm just outside of Nelson. Jason Weisenbeck, along with his father, Bill, and brothers, Paul and Bill, raise about 1,300 acres of corn and 700 acres of alfalfa each year. Weisenbeck said 100 percent of the crops grown on their farm are used for feeding their own herd of dairy cattle. The family has been involved in the dairy industry since 1919, and milking in their current facilities since 2000.
The dredging plan for Lower Pool 4 of the Mississippi encompasses 40 years and nearly 11 million cubic yards of sand the ACE is planning to store on farmland near the river.
Land acquisition by the ACE is broken into two phases. The first phase, Plan A, will take 80 acres from the Weisenbecks' farm that also happens to be one of the Weisenbeck family's best fields. It is on the edge of a residential area that borders their second farm where Weisenbeck's parents reside. The second wave of the plan will take most of that farm. The ACE hopes to implement Plan A by February.
The loss of this production land will create problems for Burnside Dairy through lost feed production. They will either need to source and purchase additional feedstuffs or cut back their herd size to what can be supported on fewer acres. They will also need to make changes to their nutrient management plan with the loss of land for manure.
In addition to the Weisenbecks, four other farms are being targeted for land acquisition by the ACE. However, Weisenbeck said the effects will be felt far beyond those four families. The project will have a great impact on the entire area, which relies heavily on tourism. Most of the dredging and sand hauling will take place in prime tourism months. In addition, it is estimated that a truck carrying sand will pass by residential housing every 90 seconds during the dredging.
ACE's job in the process is to form a base plan for the least costly, environmentally acceptable way to manage the sediment removed from the river. Although the ACE first looked at in-river resources, such as building islands to store the sand in the river, that could be beneficial to the environment, storing sand on land on the sides of the river was the best option at this time.
"The DNR and Department of Fish and Wildlife are happy with the environment in that section of the river, so that meant we had to look at off-river locations, which are limited, and largely affected by hauling costs," said Craig Evans, the Chief of Plan Formation Section of the ACE.
According to Evans, the ACE timeline has plans finalized by late August, once the public comment period has closed and been reviewed. He hoped they would move into the Real Estate Acquisition phase and begin negotiations with landowners in early 2018, noting the plan would be implemented as funding became available.
The standard Real Estate Acquisition phase begins with an appraisal to reach a fair market value, and then enters a negotiation process. Use of eminent domain and condemnation of the land is a last resort in their minds, and requires a very scripted court process to complete.
"Our plans haven't been finalized," Evans said. "We could learn something tomorrow that would change our minds as to what is the least costly, environmentally acceptable avenue to take."
Weisenbeck feels there are more questions than answers about the plan and the compensation to land-owners. He said funding has not yet been approved by Congress, which leaves the project budget uncertain. In addition, the overall budget of the ACE has been cut nearly 25 percent by the Trump administration, and the use of eminent domain also appears to be somewhat on hold.
The terms "fair market value or less" and "just compensation" have been used, but with the questions regarding funding, these terms remain unclear. The ACE has indicated there will be no place for good-will negotiations on the part of the land-owners. Regardless of the price paid for the land, it is unlikely the Weisenbecks will be able to source more land in their area.
"This is a high-livestock area, and because of that, land is at a premium here," Weisenbeck said.
Weisenbeck acknowledges the need to maintain the navigation channel in the Mississippi, but he questions the need for a 40-year plan. The ACE estimates that sand will be removed from the river at the rate of 270,000 cubic yards per year, and said nearly 95 percent of the sediment dredged from the channel comes directly from the Chippewa River, which empties into the Mississippi River at the south end of Lake Pepin, just north of Nelson.
At one public hearing, Weisenbeck questioned why the issues on the Chippewa River couldn't be fixed to help alleviate future sediment accumulation. The answer he was given was that the Chippewa River is a relatively young river in geological terms, and is still working to "bed" itself, and in that process, is eroding banks and pushing sediment downstream, where it eventually dumps into the Mississippi. Weisenbeck's request for information on independent studies that support that theory have not been answered.
Weisenbeck has praise for the elected officials from the area, and has cultivated a good working relationship with the U.S. Senators from both Wisconsin and Minnesota.
"I have them on speed dial, and I am talking with them two or three times a week," he said.
Weisenbeck recently learned of a tool that works as a form of checks and balances, requiring all federal agencies to coordinate with local governments so that all parties can have a consistent belief in the system. Weisenbeck said none of the affected farmers have obtained specific legal counsel for the problem, and is hopeful the issues can be resolved with the help of elected officials.
"You just lay in bed at night and try to get your arms around it ... it makes you lose trust in your government ... we're doing everything we can to protect our livelihood and our rights," Weisenbeck said.