Minnesota’s Drysdale family fights to save farmland from eminent domain along Mississippi River.
July 19, 2017
What would you do if the government wanted to seize your land?
Unfortunately, for the Drysdale family in Wabasha, Minn., that question isn't hypothetical, it's reality.
The Drysdales have been in the production agriculture business for four generations. They've built their operation, paid for their land and successfully transitioned the assets from one generation to the next.
Their legacy might soon come to an abrupt halt if the Army Corps of Engineers has its way. The Corps has its sights on 298 acres of the Drysdale's fertile, irrigated farmland, which is located three miles from the Mississippi River, as a location to deposit excess silt and sand coming into the river from the fast-flowing Chippewa River.
“I understand it’s important to clear this sand to keep the navigational channel open and moving. We need this river to function to move commodities, but it doesn’t make sense to take away the prime farmland that raises those very same commodities.” Chelsey Drysdale
"We found out about the Corps' plans from a FedEx box left on our doorstep in May," said Chelsey Drysdale, the fourth generation on the ranch, who runs Angus cattle with her parents, Willard and Nora. "When we opened the box, we were in shock to learn that the Corps wanted to dump sand on our land."
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The letter succinctly informed the Drysdales that their land would be acquired by the Corps.
Written by Corps Project Manager Robert Edstrom, an excerpt from the letter reads, "The Corps of Engineers St. Paul District is developing a Dredged Material Management Plan (DMMP) that will provide a plan and guidance for acquiring property through Federal acquisition processes. The long-term permanent storage of dredged material from the Mississippi River to maintain the nine-foot navigation channel is a critical mission of the Corps of Engineers, providing a reliable thoroughfare for commerce and industry.
"As a result of this study, a property you own has been identified for the Mississippi Pool 4 DMMP as desirable for Federal acquisition in support of this critical mission."
The Drysdales were also told there would be a 30-day public notice and comment period, and since May 15, when they received the news, their world has been turned upside down trying to convince the Corps there are more appropriate locations to deposit the estimated 10.7 million cubic yards of sand over the next 40 years.
"I understand it's important to clear this sand to keep the navigational channel open and moving," said Drysdale. "We need this river to function to move commodities, but it doesn't make sense to take away the prime farmland that raises those very same commodities."
Drysdale is an only child who recently graduated from South Dakota State University and has since moved home to continue the family tradition of farming and ranching that dates back to her grandfather Bill Drysdale, who purchased the land in 1939.
"This is our home," said Drysdale. "This is my parents' retirement plans. This is my future. If the land is purchased by the Corps and filled with sand, it's gone for ever. It will be a sand pit for eternity. There will be no more corn, soybeans or peas grown here. It will be destroyed."
The Corps' plan, if it goes into effect, will make the Drysdale's farm the new location for sand desposits over a period of 40 years. The dredging is needed to maintain a nine-foot navigation channel for commercial traffic along the river.
"We're putting it on islands, temporary locations, we have some permanent locations at the Wabasha gravel pit, but it's filling up," said Col. Sam Calkins with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in an interview with Fox9 News. "Within the next two years, we'll run out of places that we already own to put the sand. We won't simply take the land, we will compensate them for it. I know that's not a good answer for someone who planned to farm their land the next 40 years, but the sand has to go somewhere."
According to a Corps press release, "This project requires a review of environmental effects under the National Environmental Policy Act. A copy of the draft document is being coordinated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state resource agencies as a part of this public review process. A final determination will be made following the public review period. The draft Environmental Assessment can be viewed and downloaded at: http://www.mvp.usace.army.mil/Home/PublicNotices.aspx."
Losing the family farm acres wouldn't just impact Drysdale for 40 years, but for generations to come. She is also keenly aware of the value of this fertile farmland and the surrounding wetlands. She contacted Ray Kagel, a professional wetland scientist and wildlife biologist from Idaho, to visit the ranch and survey the proposed 298 acres.
Kagel, a former Corps employee himself, offers a unique perspective on the legalities and nature of this proposed plan and shared some of his concerns about the Corps' tactics.
"From my understanding, the Corps pre-selected the Drysdale farm to be acquired, and apparently they felt like there weren't any wetlands of substance to be worried about as far as environmental impacts are concerned," said Kagel. "However, from my visit to the farm, we found twice as many wetland areas as what the Corps had identified, and those that they did list were substantially smaller than what we had found on the ground."
He added, "The Corps erroneously made their determination that the Drysdale property would be best suited for this project based on one parameter/tool that is often useless, the National Wetlands Inventory, which is an aerial photograph from the U.S. and Wildlife Service uses. If the Drysdales themselves had wanted to sell their land for development, for example, they would have had to submit to the Corps several items including a wetland delineation study, a full written comprehensive report of the field data, soil types, soil color, whether it's hydric or non-hydric soil, a wetland hydrology, depth of the seasonal high water table, and level of saturation of the soil. Then they would have had to submit it to the Corps and wait months or years for a decision back. It appears to me the Corps decided they wanted the Drysdale property, and they didn't do any of the things they would have been required to do."
Drysdale says the local community has been strongly against the Corps' plans. Hundreds of people showed up to a recent public meeting to discuss concerns about the noise of dredging, property damage, the flow of trucks passing near the small 2,500-person town, the economic hurt to the rural community and area businesses, the damage to the environment and surrounding wetlands and the loss of land from other owners.
Support for the Drysdales, along with the two other farming families who are impacted by the Corps' plan, has arrived from Washington, D.C., with Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., all submitting requests for the Corps to find a more suitable location for the sand.
In a letter to the Corps, Franken, Baldwin and Klobuchar wrote, "At the June 15th public meeting in Wabasha, the representatives from the Corps stated that they had no choice but to proceed with the proposed plan because of federal regulations stating that they were required to implement the least-cost option. This least-cost option requirement is not in statute, but in Army Corps regulations. We therefore ask that the Corps change or waive this regulation in this instance and find alternative locations for the dredge material."
In turn, Kind and Lewis wrote to the Corps, "The dredge material removed from Lower Pool 4 has been found to be of a relatively high quality. Businesses throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin use similar sands in their daily work. Taking a useable natural resource and placing it on fertile farm land, another natural resource, wastes both and negatively impacts the productivity of the community. We also request that the Corps fully consider all uses for sediment, even those of private businesses that would be willing to take or acquire the sediment. Finding appropriate uses for dredge material will reduce the cost of land acquisition and benefit the public."
Kagel added, "The Corps also stated publicly that they needed to choose the least costly option; that is not true, and they know it. The only thing they are required to do is to choose the least environmentally damaging option. Yet, they hide the fact that there are wetlands they will be filling and have determined there will be no significant impact on the land."
"The Corps' study shows there will be no effect on the economic, environmental, social and cultural impact if they implement this plan," said Drysdale. "However, we believe dredging and dumping 10 million cubic yards of sand on prime farmland will not only impact our family, but the community, as well. This has been a really intimidating, overwhelming situation, but we are grateful to have the support of our community and of our elected officials. We hope to find a reasonable alternative for the sand to be deposited."
Questions and comments concerning the project should be directed to Bob Edstrom, Corps project manager, at Robert.K.Edstrom@usace.army.mil. Please address all correspondence on this project to the St. Paul District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attention: Project Management, 180 5th St. E., Suite 700, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101-1678.