By John Weiss
RUSHFORD — As thunderstorms menaced southeast Minnesota, Rush Creek curved through its new channel, boulders lining much of its banks, a log nearly buried along the side and grass sprouting through fibrous mats on its banks.
John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, the group that got the grant for the work that placed those boulders, logs and mats, wasn’t worried. He said the creek should be ready to withstand a gully-washing storm onslaught because of the restoration efforts that began last year and continued this summer.
The increasing frequency of severe rainstorms, such as the one that dumped eight inches of rain on some parts of the region earlier this summer, is making such stream work more important — and much more difficult.
“It’s not a question of if it will flood, but when and where,” said Melissa Wagner, DNR stream habitat specialist who oversaw work on Rush. Vegetation needs at least a few years to be fully established, she said, but some restoration projects in southeast Minnesota have been hit with three major floods within the first year. Because of that, new contracts for stream restoration now include two years of follow-up maintenance, Lenczewski said.
Rush is a perfect example of a stream that needed work because of its too-wide, shallow channel and steep banks, Lenczewski said. It’s also an example of how more flooding is hampering improvements — some work last fall was damaged by a spring flood, though other parts held up very well, Wagner said. Contractors were back in June and now, Rush’s banks are greening up.
Rush’s improvements cost about $348,000 of Legacy money, which comes from a state sales tax surcharge, and that money helped improve more than a mile of stream between Rushford and Lewiston, Lenczewski said.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council that dispenses the Legacy money, said it has spent $8.2 million thus far on 53 sites or parcels of trout stream in the southeast, not including Rush because it’s not yet done. That compares with $6.8 million it has given for non-trout projects in the region, he said.
In addition, the DNR has used $1,267,920 in trout stamp money from 2012 through this year for trout and salmon habitat work throughout the state, according to DNR figures, as well as parts of another $2,715,503 from license sales.
That’s a lot of money, Lenczewski admits. But he says it’s worth it because trout angling is a $1.6 billion industry in the Driftless Area (blufflands) of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa, according to a TU study. He added that work also keeps more sediment from overflowing trout habitat farther down Rush or sending more dirt into the Root and Mississippi rivers.
Rush also is a great example of a big disagreement about what is the best way to protect streambanks from powerful currents, a disagreement that flared again this year.
There are three basic ways to restore a stream.
• Planting prairie grasses and flowers that grow deep roots. Dr. Michael Osterholm, the internationally known epidemiologist, did that on land just across the border into Iowa and, after trying boulders and trees, said only prairie worked. Others, however, note that he had more than 100 acres to work with, while most trout stream work being done here is in a 132-foot wide corridor so they don’t have room to make prairie work.
• Use old tree roots and trunks set into the banks. That has been used throughout the region for many years, often successfully. Vaughn Snook, assistant DNR trout supervisor in Lanesboro, has a fishing mantra of “wood is good” because it attracts bugs that trout eat.
• Use boulders to buttress the banks.
Ironically, the flareup over which method is best appears to be leading to more cooperation and shared vision for future projects.
Gary Sobotta, partner with Tom Dornack in Habitat Solutions that does habitat work, set off the controversy with his post on a trout-fishing web site this spring. He began: “The purpose of these postings is to show the failure of the bad habitat design promoted by Minnesota Trout Unlimited and MN DNR Ecological Services Division. They have wasted millions of public tax dollars on projects which provide little to no actual trout habitat, are continually washing out, need repair and are a poor investment of angler dollars.”
In a recent interview, he said boulders, which he primarily uses, are better than wood. Rock is natural, it’s what was here a few centuries ago while there weren’t many trees, he said. But he also acknowledged that wood can have its purpose.
His post led to a tour of some projects by top DNR, TU and Legacy officials.
Johnson said the tour revealed how hard it can be to fix bluffland streams. The tour also showed they might have to concentrate more on fewer miles but do better work on those miles, he said. As for what’s best for stabilizing streambanks, “Wood and rock can work well together in specific circumstances and if used right,” he said.
Sobotta said he was “hugely” happy with the outcome because he got the council’s attention, and that could lead to more follow-up work to make sure projects are still working. No matter how well-designed and constructed they are, all will need some follow-up work, he said.
All projects go through an environmental review and permitting process, said Ron Benjamin, DNR fisheries supervisor in Lanesboro. Review is done either by the DNR or the local government, often the county, he said. Once the review is done and the project is given the green light on that level, the DNR begins permitting to make sure the project meets all state rules.
He also noted that stream improvements are as much art as science. State and private groups have only been doing extensive work, such as that on Rush, for a few decades. What works in other parts of the country might not work here, he said.
One more thing came out of the tour, something both Benjamin and Johnson noted — the need for more flexibility. They called on the DNR section that gives permits to let them use anything that will help, asking for “every tool in the tool box.”