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Denny Hanna honored for waterworks

Denny Hanna, a former town board supervisor for Grey Cloud Island Township, accepts congratulations from Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham for his years of service, including his advocacy for the restoration of Grey Cloud Island Channel. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)

Denny Hanna probably won’t be around to see the completion of the Grey Cloud Island Crossing, the $1.8 million river project he helped start more than a decade ago.

The project, which begins in 2017, will replace the causeway with a bridge where County Road 75 crosses Grey Cloud channel, a Mississippi River backwater. It will revive the freshwater flow to the channel, which has been degraded by stagnant water, weeds and algae.

Hanna, an early advocate of revitalizing the waterway, is leaving Minnesota early next year with his wife.

“We’re buying a mobile home and going to travel while we still can,” he said.

Hanna, 72, said the decision was made last year when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Liz Hanna, who served several years as Grey Cloud Island Township treasurer, is expected to recover and they’ll leave after her treatments are completed in about a month, he said.

Hanna’s activism, first as a private citizen and later as a board member and vice president of the South Washington Watershed District, is credited with helping make the Grey Cloud Island Crossing project a reality.

Watershed administrator Matt Moore remembers seeing Hanna at a watershed meeting in 2000.

“He actually started attending meetings on his own,” Moore said.

The causeway was built in 1965 with stone, gravel, logs and debris after a flood washed out the area. While it provides access to the upper island from St. Paul Park, it also dammed up the channel and created a slough with stagnant water.

In 2002, Hanna got what amounted to a free engineering evaluation when he contacted the University of Minnesota. As part of their course requirements, senior engineering students there conducted two studies of the site, including a water quality analysis.

Obtaining this substantive data was crucial in making the case for restoration.

“He worked with the university and got some students involved,” Moore said. “At the time, nobody had any funding for the project. It was a way for Denny to get some information that the township could use to say, ‘There’s a problem here and there’s a need for a project to restore the flow.’”

For his work on the channel, Hanna was recognized Dec. 14 by the Grey Cloud Town Board, where he served multiple terms. Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham thanked him for his 13 years of service with the watershed district and noted that subsequent generations of people will enjoy the restored backwater.

“Your leadership and expertise and passion for the Watershed and Grey Cloud Island Township will be greatly missed,” she said.

“Denny was one of the first people I met with about this topic,” Bigham said later. “He really was instrumental calling some of the key players up at the Capitol to let them know how strong the local support was for the project.”

That support took shape earlier this year when the Legislature approved the remaining $520,000 needed for the project. The state funding is part of a clean water grant in the so-called Legacy bill, a package of outdoors, conservation and arts projects funded with revenue from the voter-approved dedicated state sales tax.

Lynn Utecht, who attended the Dec. 14 meeting to see Hanna recognized, said she remembers when she could ride a horse across the channel.

“We’re going to miss his expertise and all the time he put into everything,” she said.

For the next chapter in their lives, the Hannas likely will be drawn to other waters — both are certified scuba divers who have explored the coves and coral reefs in Hawaii, Aruba, the Virgin Islands and Cozumel.

While scuba diving in Belize, they came face to face with a grouper, a fish Hanna said was “about as big as a Volkswagon.”

They’ve sold their 10-acre property on Grey Cloud Island and near the back channel, where they’ve lived for more than 20 years. Hanna said he’s proudest of the work he’s done to give the waterway a new lease on life.

“We just realized we’re getting old,” he said. “We got to the point where we wanted to simplify our lives.”

Asked what he will miss most about Minnesota, Hanna said, “The people.”

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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