A portion of Lambert Creek prone to flooding in eastern Ramsey County is being reshaped into a meandering stream, the latest attempt to restore metro area rivers that have become polluted ditches.
The aim is to attract more wildlife and produce cleaner water but also reduce flooding that threatens nearby Vadnais Heights neighborhoods.
A few miles away, crews have reshaped two portions of Rice Creek’s channel in Shoreview and Arden Hills, restoring natural twists and turns that farmers and businesses straightened out decades ago to maximize usable land.
“Almost 50 percent of stream channels across the state have been altered — mostly by straightening,” said Jamison Wendel, stream habitat supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Division of the state Department of Natural Resources. “There was a lot of ditching that occurred in the early 1900s. It was pretty widespread.”
Scientists are concluding that the best solution is simply to restore the natural twists and turns that existed before farming and industry altered the streams to better serve their needs.
Scientists call the process “meandering,” and it is happening in creeks and streams across the state. Just as Minnesota tries to restore natural savanna and grasslands, state and local agencies are restoring waterways to improve water quality and habitat while reducing flooding.
The DNR, watershed districts and other local groups rely on money from Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to pay for the projects.
Stream projects of this magnitude generally involve scientific assessment, engineering and heavy equipment to complete the work.
The money from the Legacy fund, created by a statewide sales tax devoted largely to environmental projects, makes Minnesota “the envy of other states,” Wendel said.
Lambert Creek, also known as Ditch 14, connects East Goose Lake to East Vadnais Lake. Decades ago, workers dug out the creek to drain the wetland area, said Dawn Tanner, program development coordinator with the Vadnais Lake Area Watershed Management Organization.
Creating new twists and turns on a portion of the creek will slow the water flow, reduce sediment and improve water quality and natural habitat.
“The goal is to get more natural contours so it feels more like a creek and responds like a creek,” Tanner said. “So much in our watershed was ditched many years ago, it’s hard to know what it used to look like.”
Instead of cutting through the wetland, the creek will function in harmony with it, better absorbing water during flood season. Tanner said there will also be native vegetation restoration, which should entice more wildlife including Blanding’s turtles, river otters and perhaps even the endangered rusty patched bumble bee that’s been spotted in the area.
The watershed district is planning to replace a bank stabilization barrier at Lambert Pond to further control flooding. It will also use a special treatment to reduce nutrients and bacteria in the water.
Tanner said the district hopes to start the $1 million project by next winter.
On the western side of Ramsey County, the Rice Creek Watershed District has overhauled two portions of the creek and now will stabilize the banks of a third section that flows through Fridley in Anoka County. State money has helped pay for the $1.9 million creek restoration work.
“We are trying to keep sediment and nutrients out of those systems. It’s not so good for fish, invertebrates and other critters,” said Matt Kocian, aquatic ecologist and project manager for the Rice Creek Watershed District.
Rice Creek watershed staff have found aerial photos from the 1930s that show the skeleton of the naturally twisting waterway soon after it was straightened. That is helping guide the work. Crews finished the most recent river overhaul through Ramsey County parkland in Arden Hills in 2018.
It also makes the creek, which is designated a regional water trail, more scenic for outdoor enthusiasts who kayak or hike along the trail systems that follow it.
Kocian said restoring streams to a more natural contour is part of the solution for cleaner creeks and streams.
While the aesthetic improvements have enormous value, “the other part of it is doing a better job of managing stormwater runoff,” Kocian said. “That’s the long game.”