Cooper project looks to bring islands, ecotourism back to Pool 19

Jim Noll speaks with U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack in October at the Lee County Conservation Center about establishing a refuge along the Mississippi River to help bring back islands and the river's ecosystem pre-1900. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC


LEE COUNTY – In the late 1800s islands were as much a part of the Mississippi River ecosystem and economy as the water itself.

Fort Madison’s Jim Noll thinks resurrecting those islands could be the remaking of a more hospitable environment for a habitat restoration.

His thinking comes with precedent…and plenty of it.

Noll has been working officials in all arenas, from economic development, to business, to political, in an effort to re-establish a riverine culture that yields recreational and quality of life venues for the public and adds additional retail possibilities for local communities.

He said the dams are ultimately responsible for raising the water levels and with an assist from what is called wind fetch, which causes clouding, or turbidity in the waters which hinders sunlight from reaching underwater vegetation and ultimately has changed the personality of the river.

By rebuilding the islands, Noll thinks that would help bring back the dynamics of the river pre-1900, creating more opportunities for outdoor recreation, such as canoeing, kayaking, and fishing – or ecotourism.

The area he’s focusing on is what’s termed Pool 19 of Lake Cooper. The designation Lake Cooper comes from Hugh L. Cooper who designed and financed Lock and Dam 19 in Keokuk in 1913.

He said the implementation of crest gates on the LD19, as opposed to roller gates, has played a big part of the siltation problem.  Crest gates cause water to flow over the top of the dam which causes silt to fall to the bottom before going over. Roller gates are at the bottom of the dam and roll allowing bottom water to flow through the dam which keeps silt moving.

“If you take those two things – that helped decimate the islands to the point where they were unrecoverable,” he said.

But he said a private effort to help make corrections could be a $10 million project, and to do it locally would cost $3.5 – $4 million in match funds. However, if the area were to be declared a refuge then it could be 100% funded by the government.

“People just need to know this is one of those “squeaky wheel” deals and is going to require community wide efforts,” Noll said.

He said there was no promise of the ecotourism, but he said that’s exactly what’s happened in places that have done the re-engineering of the river.

“In a lot of these projects, that’s exactly what it’s brought with it. Up in northeast Iowa its big business.  Kayaks, canoes, and clubs that travel doing that, generate “heads in beds” That’s why I call it retail enhancement,” he said.

“If you get in the refuge it’s even more prominent, the US Fish & Wildlife Service manages it as a place families and sportsmen recreate, which results in so called”ecotourism.”

Noll has been making presentations on both sides of the river and points to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent every where along the Mississippi, except here.

The projects, from run from Minnesota to southern Missouri but absent in activity on the river in Lee and Des Moines counties in Iowa, and Henderson and Hancock counties in Illinois. He said he’s done diligence with politicians and US Fish & Wildlife Service and has been told that Pool 19 doesn’t qualify for refuge status because it’s more than 20 miles from the nearest refuge, which is 37 miles north on the river.

With this being what Noll calls a “no” project, he asked for the reasons in writing and now is focusing his efforts on advocating for a waiver of Fish & Wildlife policies.

He said he’s not asking for the government to spend more money on the Pool 19 project, but to reallocate funding from some of the other projects that have already come to fruition, to help spawn some activity in Pool 19.

Noll has formed a not-for-profit Friends of Pool 19 Lake Cooper and is now working on getting the basics of the program out to residents. The point of that effort will be at some point, to start a petition drive to be submitted on behalf of the project.

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