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UW-La Crosse launches new Mississippi River research vessel

The larger boat will expand research on the Upper Mississippi and surrounding ecosystem

A silver and maroon boat with the UWL logo floats on the Mississippi River in the rain
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Research Vessel Prairie Springs floats on the Mississippi River in La Crosse on Tuesday May 21, 2024. (Hope Kirwan/WPR)

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse launched a new research vessel this week to expand scientific study of the Mississippi River.

The Research Vessel Prairie Springs was christened during a celebration at Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse on Tuesday. The event ended with the tradition of breaking a bottle of champagne across the bow of the boat for good luck.

The 32-foot catamaran landing craft with aluminum hulls will allow scientists to navigate the shallow backwaters of the Upper Mississippi and easily disembark onto the river’s shores. Eric Strauss, director of UW-La Crosse’s River Studies Center, said the new vessel is also much faster and larger than the program’s other boats.

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“We can get more individuals out on the water, both students and faculty, to conduct research as well as to take field trips or courses,” Strauss said. “And I’m not talking about just university students. We’re going to try to partner with the community as well to get high school students and younger ones out.”

Carolyn Fleckenstein Scott, trustee of the Paul Fleckenstein Trust, holds the crushed champagne bottle after christening UWL’s Research Vessel Prairie Springs. Photo courtesy of UW-La Crosse

The $500,000 vessel came from a gift by the Paul Fleckenstein Trust, which previously donated $2 million dollars for the construction of UW-Lacrosse’s Prairie Springs Science Center. 

Strauss said having a research vessel of this caliber is unique for universities, but especially those studying rivers or other inland waters.

The boat is already being used for a study of microplastics contamination on the Mississippi River. He said the next project will equip it with high-end sonars to begin mapping the bottom of the river, allowing scientists to study sedimentation.

The vessel will also boost research partnerships through the Freshwater Collaborative, an initiative to bring together water research and education across campuses in the Universities of Wisconsin.

Marissa Jablonski, executive director of the collaborative, said students from across the state will be able to gain valuable research skills by working on the Upper Mississippi.

“Training the next generation of water professionals is critical to Wisconsin’s future, and the RV Prairie Springs offers a fantastic opportunity,” she said.

The Research Vessel Prairie Springs is significantly faster, larger and more technologically advanced than other vessels in UWL’s fleet. Photo courtesy of UW-La Crosse

Strauss agreed that expanding research into water quality is critical at a time when a growing number of Wisconsin communities are struggling with concerns like PFAS or high nitrates.

“Fresh water is a very important resource,” Strauss said. “Having a vessel like this is going to help us study the quality of water in the Mississippi River and its connected systems.”

He said the River Studies Center is also working on an agreement with La Crosse-based marine construction company JF Brennan to add industry-standard equipment to the vessel, giving students skills that could help them stand out in the river-related workforce. The company received the UW Board of Regents 2024 Business Partnership Award during the event in La Crosse on Tuesday.

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