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It's the public's turn to weigh in on the future of parkland at Pigs Eye Lake on St. Paul's East Side, including a $15.6 million project to build a series of islands and create more natural habitat in and around the lake.

Ramsey County owns more than 500 acres of property surrounding much of the lake, actually a natural backwater of the Mississippi River. County officials want to amend the 1981 master park plan to allow for the island building and other natural resource improvements.

The County Board is expected to vote on the amendment in November. But first the public will have all of September to offer its own views.

"We can relay the project's goals," said Ramsey County Parks and Recreation Director Mark McCabe. "We hope to alleviate any concerns people may have and provide correct and accurate facts."

Barring complications, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers anticipates starting construction of the islands next spring.

One neighborhood activist has expressed concerns about adding islands to the lake, where an old dumpsite and the region's wastewater treatment plant sit nearby.

But the project enjoys the support of county leaders including Commissioner Jim McDonough, who represents much of the East Side on the board.

The Metropolitan Council, which has jurisdiction over regional parks, also will need to approve the amended plan. According to a statement from the council, it has helped the county with planning "and supports efforts toward environmental restoration in Pigs Eye Lake."

Ramsey County is working with the Army Corps, which would build six islands totaling more than 35 acres in the 629-acre lake. The Corps, which has spent years conducting soil and water tests, would use dredgings removed from the river channel to build the islands.

"The dredge material was tested by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and was determined suitable for placing in public waters," said Scott Yonke, planning and development director for Ramsey County Parks and Recreation, in a video detailing the project.

With $11.3 million of the project coming from federal funding, the remaining $4.3 million would be covered by the state's Outdoor Heritage Fund, one of four funds created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

Ramsey County Park staffers have compared the shallow lake, visible to motorists on Hwy. 61, to an aquatic desert. Wind sweeping across the lake stirs sediment in the water, blocking sunlight and preventing vegetation from taking root.

The proposed islands would help block winds, lower sediment and create habitat for native plants and animals including the fish, frogs, water fowl and river otters known to populate the area.

It would be Ramsey County's largest water restoration project, comparable to work done to restore oak woodlands and other natural spaces.

"The hope is this is going to be a beautiful setting and people one day are going to want to get there," said Nathan Campbell, project manager for the Corps' St. Paul District.

Looking to do more cleanup

The amended park plan does not address future public access to the county-owned parkland. That's because there's pollution in and around the lake that still needs to be addressed, McCabe said.

Marshland probably once existed in Pigs Eye Lake, shifting with the ebb and flow of the river. Construction of the Mississippi River's lock and dam system in the 1930s likely changed the lake, which Army Corps staffers say has expanded its footprint since the 1950s.

Pig's Eye Dump operated on the north side of the lake between 1956 and 1972, and much of the waste — an estimated 8.3 million cubic yards — was deposited in wetland areas. It made Pig's Eye the largest unpermitted dump site in Minnesota.

The Met Council's wastewater treatment plant also is close to the lake, depositing sludge ash from 1977 to 1985. There's industry nearby such as the Canadian Pacific Railway's rail yard, which according to the county sees more than 100 trains pass through daily.

Campbell said it is hoped that improving natural habitat in and around the lake will increase interest in further environmental cleanup in the area, which could lead to future access for hikers, bird-watchers and paddlers.

The Corps has completed other island building projects downriver near Winona and Buffalo County, Wis., that are now flourishing with wildlife, officials have said.

Ramsey County's amended master plan also calls for shoreline restoration, invasive species removal and the conversion of some wooded areas to flood plain forest.

Leaders at the nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River said they support the project but would like to know more details.

"We continue to be supportive of the general goal of this project," said Executive Director Whitney Clark. "We'd like to see them use this opportunity to really consider including climate adaptive species and to use this opportunity to understand more about habitat restoration in the era of climate change."

Ramsey County will host a virtual community meeting on the master plan affecting Pigs Eye Lake from noon to 1 p.m. on Sept. 17. Those wishing to attend must register in advance.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037