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CEE students students Maya Pardanani, Kris Alvarado, Clara Zwolanek, Dylan Schindler and Rachael Heck
March 18, 2024

Student team tackles deep challenge in northwestern Wisconsin lake

Written By: Alex Holloway

Day by day, sand piles up on Lake Altoona’s lakebed.

It’s a problem that builds over time and beneath the surface, making the 840-acre reservoir less suitable for fish and other aquatic life and impeding boating and other recreational activities. And it’s been a challenge that Eau Claire County, in northwestern Wisconsin, has contended with for years.

Enter the Muddy Buddies, a five-member team of University of Wisconsin-Madison civil and environmental engineering students. They dug into the challenge in the fall 2023 semester as part of their senior capstone design course, in partnership with UW-Madison’s UniverCity Alliance program.

Chad Berge, the land conservation manager with Eau Claire County’s Land Conservation Division, says the Eau Claire River carries sediment from eroded banks upstream into Lake Altoona. A 30,000-cubic-yard sand trap catches some of the heavier sediments upstream before they reach Lake Altoona, but that requires regular dredging—an expensive prospect, at $100,000 or more per go. Finer silts and clays suspended higher in the water can slip past the trap and flow out into the middle of the lake.

“We’ve been having this problem with the lake and spending all this money—and it’s just snowballed over the last several years and led into this collaboration,” Berge says.

Eau Claire County has partnered with the UniverCity Alliance, which connects communities throughout Wisconsin to faculty and student groups at UW-Madison. They work together to tackle real-world issues through a three-year-long partnership program. Eau Claire County is a partner for 2022-25, with several student groups working on an array of projects.

sand trap dredging in Eau Claire River
An aerial view of a sand trap dredging operation on the Eau Claire River. The river flows into Lake Altoona, carrying sediment that has caused challenging buildups for the community. Photo courtesy of Eau Claire County.

That’s where the Muddy Buddies came in. The five students—Kris Alvarado, Rachel Heck, Maya Pardanani, Dylan Shindler and Clara Zwolanek—spent the semester designing a proposal to address the sediment problem in Lake Altoona.

The Muddy Buddies presented a bank stabilization project that could help address the root cause of some of Lake Altoona’s troubles. It’s a preventative solution that builds upon some of the work community stakeholders have already done to calculate the erosion rates of the Eau Claire River’s upstream riverbanks.

“The channel meanders, so some of the banks were more severely eroded than others,” Pardanani says. “We did a lot of hydraulic analysis, looking at how the water’s velocity changes and how that impacts erosion. From there, we came up with the reasoning that because a lot of the erosion comes from a small number of banks, we could stabilize the sand there, before it gets into the river, instead of trying to chase it downstream.”

The team’s proposal employs a number of erosion control elements built into riverbanks upstream from Lake Altoona. It primarily calls for gabion baskets and riprap—which hold large stones—to protect the toe of the riverbank against erosion. The students also proposed planting vegetation on the banks so the roots can help hold soil in place, with the option to add ground anchors for additional reinforcement where needed.

Finally, the design includes berms that can direct rainfall into the river via pipes installed at the top of the banks.

“Our final design is a combination of all these things,” Shindler says. “Their performance can be evaluated over time, so if any other banks need to be stabilized in the future, our client can choose the best-performing pieces from the design.”

Eau Claire County will likely use the designs as a springboard for solutions as it works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the sediment issue. And Berge says he was impressed by the students’ final presentation at the end of the fall 2023 semester.

“They did a great job, and all throughout the process they were engaged, asked great questions, and made the best use of the resources available to them,” he says. “Just looking through their design and some of the things they talked about on the geotechnical side for stabilizing the bank, it looks like they came up with a viable option that got into some of what we’re already looking at.”

The senior capstone course often puts civil and environmental students on projects that, like UniverCity’s partnership program, draw on real-world needs. It gives them the chance to experience how their education has prepared them to enter the field as professionals.

“I really like how the entire project gave us the chance to apply everything we’ve learned over the last three to four years,” Zwolanek says. “We’ve taken all of that and put it to use in a real-world project. It really shows how the things we learn in class are applied outside of class.”

UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter says UniverCity projects are a way for students to learn through hands-on experience with real, pressing challenges that communities across the state are facing. In turn, it helps connect communities looking for partners with some of the resources available at UW-Madison.

Luter sees the program as an expansion of the Wisconsin Idea into a sort of dialogue: sharing UW-Madison’s knowledge, research and resources beyond the boundaries of campus while also listening to what can be learned from partners across the state.

“We know that our communities have a lot of knowledge,” Luter says. “Our students need that, and it’s not always in textbooks. There’s a lot of wisdom out there about how the world actually works, and our students get to access that by also helping to make the world a better place. We hope during all of this that our students come out learning just as much as our community partners have.”

Featured image caption: Civil and environmental engineering students Maya Pardanani, Kris Alvarado, Clara Zwolanek, Dylan Schindler and Rachael Heck (from left) worked together on a project to address sand buildup in Lake Altoona in Eau Claire County during the fall 2023 semester. Submitted photo.