An operator nudged a rock into place along Trout Run Creek south of St. Charles. Contractors overhauled the stream bank and seeded native grasses to reduce erosion and improve trout habitat.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Anyone who has been around local streams knows them: steep banks several feet tall — a wall of black topsoil ready to slough off.
Ever since Western agriculture brought plows to the Driftless Area, banks like this have become common on local creeks and rivers. When flash floods hit, the water rises, but it is trapped between the steep banks. The banks act like a thumb pressed against the nozzle of a hose. That’s when serious erosion starts happening.
“The velocities get greater and greater and greater, and it blows out trees,” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Area Fisheries Supervisor Ron Benjamin explained.
Then floods can erode tons of sediment, clouding downstream rivers to the detriment of aquatic life and carrying nutrients like phosphorus that produce algae blooms. That depletes dissolved oxygen trout and other animals need and ultimately adds to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Enter Dennis Barth and his crew. Over the last few weeks, Barth Construction’s team of bulldozer and excavator operators peeled back steep banks on a stretch of Trout Run Creek south of St. Charles and seeded native grasses into the worked up soil. They flattened out the creek sides so that, instead of a coursing through a narrow nozzle, flash floods can spread out over a broad floodplain. That slows down floods so that floodwaters drop sediment instead of washing more soil away. At the same time, the equipment operators lined strategic points of the riverbank with rip rap to protect against future erosion.
With thousands of pounds of force and the dexterity of a craftsmen, one of Barth’s excavator operators lifted a massive boulder and tucked it into the stream bank. The operator gently nudged the gargantuan rock with his excavator bucket until it jostled into place.
“These guys are very skilled, no doubt,” EOR, Inc. Engineer Mike Majewski said. “It’s like the excavator bucket is an extension of your hand.”
“I tell Mike I’m an artist and he can’t talk to me when I’m working,” Barth joked.
Barth and Majewski’s work on Trout Run Creek is just one of numerous trout stream restoration projects across the Driftless Area. These projects create good habitat for trout and good fishing, and in the process reduce erosion, improve water quality, and create habitat for other animals such as pollinators, amphibians, and reptiles.
Barth’s crew placed massive rocks and tree root balls in the creek to create trout habitat. “[Trout] like cover,” Benjamin explained. “They like to have something over their head … If the water is shallower, say 24-30 inches, then they’d like to be under a log or some vegetation that’s draped over the water. That cover gives them security.”
Nodding to one root wad that created an eddy in the current, Majewski said, “It provides slack water behind it for trout to ambush prey.”
Pointing out a nearly car-sized rock placed just upstream a spring entering the creek, Majewski explained that the boulder creates a deep hole where the icy spring water can stay cold. For cold-water-dependent trout, he added, “They’re great hot-weather refuges for trout when it gets really hot.”
“The value of this project is protecting the trout, number one,” Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist Sue Glende said. “Protecting the resource of tourism — down in Southeast Minnesota it contributes a huge economic value to the whole entire region. It’s kind of a unique resource that we have in Southeast Minnesota. Not all parts of Minnesota are blessed enough to have trout streams. The seedings and native grasses will help protect the banks, which will reduce the amount of sediment into the creeks, and trout need fresh, clear, clean water.” That reduced erosion will have a small, but positive impact on the entire Root River watershed downstream of Trout Run Creek, she added.
Organized by Trout Unlimited, this roughly $275,000 project is predominately funded by Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment Outdoor Heritage Fund, along with $90,000 from the NRCS and some funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the local Trout Unlimited chapter.
“I work in four states, and, boy, we wish we had that program in those [other] states,” Trout Unlimited Project Manager Jeff Hastings said of the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
Even so, Benjamin stated, “I get calls — probably 30 a week — saying, ‘Please, come work in my stream.’ They don’t understand there’s not enough money in the world to work on every stream each year.”
Trout Run Creek is not the most needy stream, Benjamin added. It has a very healthy population of wild brown trout with no stocking by the DNR, he explained. “Trout Run is one of those blue-ribbon streams, and everyone wants to work on the best streams,” Benjamin stated. Because it is so good to begin with, the project may not vastly increase the amount of trout Trout Run Creek can support, but it will help this section of stream stay in good condition for decades to come, he said.
While Trout Unlimited is organizing this stream restoration project, over the years other conservation agencies have helped upland farmers along Trout Run Creek put land into managed grazing and the USDA conservation reserve program (CRP). Those practices help reduce some of the ridgetop erosion that created problems downstream to begin with.
Nearly all of Trout Run Creek has public fishing easements, meaning that the DNR has paid private property owners for permanent public fishing access along the creek. Because the purpose of Trout Unlimited’s work is to benefit the public, fishing easements are a prerequisite for restoration projects like this one, Minnesota Trout Unlimited Executive Director John Lenczewski said.
One of the best signs of success for conservationists is when a stream can support a self-sustaining population of trout, Hastings stated. He said of Trout Run Creek, “This is one of the greatest trout streams in Southeast Minnesota.”