In the heart of winter, crews are reshaping a murky ditch in northern Ramsey County into a more natural stream full of twists and turns — and, eventually, clearer water.

Crews are more than halfway through a process scientists call "meandering," or re-sculpting about 2,000 feet of Lambert Creek, also called Ditch 14, in Vadnais Heights.

The goal is to improve water quality and natural habitat in that stretch of creek, which is on city property, said Dawn Tanner, a conservation biologist and program development coordinator with the Vadnais Lake Area Watershed Management Organization (VLAWMO), which is overseeing the project. The new curves will slow the water speed, allowing more sediment to settle out of it and improve water quality, she said.

"It makes for cleaner water reaching East Vadnais Lake, which is a reservoir for drinking water for the city of St. Paul," Tanner said.

The meander should also reduce flooding by "reconnecting the stream to its flood plain," she said. Instead of cutting through the wetland, the creek will function in harmony with it, better absorbing water during flood season.

The watershed management organization is also replacing a bank stabilization barrier at nearby Lambert Pond to further control flooding and will use a special treatment to reduce nutrients and bacteria in the water.

Because crews are using heavy machinery, they had to wait until a hard freeze to start digging in the normally mushy peat that makes up the creek bed. A new overhead drone video that VLAWMO and engineering firm SEH released shows the dramatic transformation from ditch to creek.

"It took my breath away," Tanner said.

Tanner said the project costs about $600,000 and is being paid for with state and federal grants and a state loan. The work will continue this spring with crews planting native vegetation, which will attract more wildlife including Blanding's turtles and river otters.

Scientists believe that meandering Lambert Creek, which connects East Goose Lake to East Vadnais Lake, may actually restore it to its natural state.

"You can see it's a perfectly straight-cut ditch. That is absolutely not natural," said Vadnais Heights Council Member Patricia Youker, who also serves on the VLAWMO board.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates that nearly half of all stream channels across the state were straightened decades ago, often by farmers and others who wanted to maximize the land. Now state and local agencies are restoring waterways — similar to efforts to restore natural savannas and grasslands.

Other streams that have undergone meandering include Rice Creek in northern Ramsey County and Minnehaha Creek in Hennepin County.

Vadnais Heights leaders support the meander because it will improve the overall health of that ecosystem, Youker said.

"It's a pretty exciting project," she said. "We are hoping to see more river otters come back."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037