In early July, when Matt Kocian paddled through the new, winding, milelong Middle Rice Creek restoration project in New Brighton, he wasn’t sure what he’d find. There’d been weeks of high water and persistent flows.
In the recent past, such conditions flooded nearby residential areas and spurred stream-bank erosion that carried phosphorous-laden sediment downstream into a lake and eventually the Mississippi River.
But after snapping photos and doing a close inventory of the stream-restoration work that began in 2015 and ended last August, Kocian felt equal parts relief and satisfaction. Nostalgia, too. The work stood up.
“The thing is, from sitting in the kayak relatively low in the creek, it felt and looked completely wild,” said Kocian, lake and stream specialist with the Rice Creek Watershed District, who oversaw the project. “It was like going back in time. You’d never guess you were in a densely populated suburban area. Except for a couple spots that may need replanting, it looked quite good.”
The new stretch — “remeandered” — of Middle Rice Creek is part of an ambitious four-part plan to improve water quality in nutrient-impaired and carp-infested Long Lake — a popular outdoor-recreation destination and fishery downstream from Middle Rice Creek that suffers persistent summer algae blooms. The project’s cost is about $7 million, $3 million of which came from a grant from the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources. Additional watershed restoration work, this time in Lower Rice Creek, is slated to begin next year.
The Middle Rice Creek restoration flows through Ramsey County’s 124-acre Rice Creek North Regional Trail Corridor just east of I-35W. The creek, which also runs through the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant property, extends from Lino Lakes to New Brighton. Historically, Middle Rice Creek had many twists and turns, natural contours that moved water slowly through the system and provided ample fish and wildlife habitat. In the early 1900s, however, the creek was straightened for agricultural proposes.
“The idea was to get as much water off the landscape as quickly as possible,” said Kocian.
The change triggered a cascade of ecological and hydrological problems for the watershed. The banks of the straightened creek were gradually destabilized as more and faster water moved through the system. In turn, erosion increased, as did pulses of sediment and phosphorus — likely from farm chemicals applied to adjacent fields — entering Long Lake. Biological surveys indicated the amount, condition and diversity of fish and aquatic life in the creek was poor. Middle Rice Creek was placed on Minnesota’s Impaired Waters List in 2006 by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The restoration of a creek, Kocian said, is a big job that often requires heavy machinery. In short, contractors excavated a new channel, restoring Middle Rice Creek’s historic meanders. Native grasses, sedges, wildflowers and trees were planted to stabilize the banks and improve habitat for wildlife and pollinators. Today, a verdant, winding corridor cuts the water’s velocity, keeps it from carving into banks, and allows sediment to settle. The creek has been reconnected to its flood plain, which links up to nearby wetland. Bird and amphibian life, Kocian said, has blossomed. Improved in-stream habitat, with shallow runs and deeper pools, should improve life for fish and invertebrates.
“Our primary goal with the restoration is to reduce sediment and nutrient-loading that contributes to algae blooms in Long Lake, but there are many other secondary benefits, too,” said Kocian, adding the watershed district, along with the U.S. Geological Survey, will monitor water quality to determine if the restoration is having its intended effect. “For kayakers and other paddlers, the creek’s added curves have transformed what was once a straight-line float into a scenic and a bit more challenging paddle. The feedback we’ve gotten so far has been really positive.”
In addition to the creek restoration, improvements to existing stormwater treatment facilities — designed to improve water quality and mitigate flooding — have been completed at Mirror Lake in St. Anthony and New Brighton’s Hanson Park. Kocian said the upgrade includes an iron-enhanced sand filter that cleans dirty stormwater runoff and captures phosphorus. The phosphorus adheres to the iron in the sand filter.
The wild card, Kocian said, is the watershed district’s ongoing battle with Long Lake’s prodigious population of invasive common carp. Carp are voracious eaters of insects along lake bottoms. As they feed, they stir sediments and uproot vegetation, ultimately killing plants that improve water quality and provide fish and waterfowl important food and habitat. Carp also release nutrients in their waste, which hurts water quality by causing higher phosphorus levels that help green algae blooms to form.
In an effort to control the population, the watershed district, Kocian said, is working with the University of Minnesota and Carp Solutions, a Minnesota-based carp-management company, on a long-term removal strategy. This spring, a low-voltage “electric guidance system” was employed, capturing roughly 4,500 carp.
“They swim along an electric field until they swim into the trap,” said Kocian. “This is really the first full year we’ve done this, so we’re hoping to improve on what did going forward. Right now we have a carp population 10 times we want it to be. We have to get it under control.”
Todd Murawski is the recreation program coordinator for Anoka County Parks and Recreation Department. In late August, he led two paddles through the restored stretch of Middle Rice Creek, giving it rave reviews.
“It’s just a beautiful stretch — and our participants loved it,” he said. “The meanders slow the trip down, and the diverse scenery and habitat gives it such a wild feel. You’re floating low enough in the water where the banks catch the nose from traffic and cut the slight lines of houses. It’s place like this that will reconnect more people to nature and the outdoors.”
Wildlife — in diversity and abundance — has taken residence in the restored stretch. Ducks, warblers, great blue herons, egrets, turtles, various raptors and more.
Murawski said the creek’s water quality appears to be improving, too.
“The clarity is a little better, which is a good sign that the restoration is working,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving parts to the overall project to restore Long Lake, but I think the future is bright. I can’t wait to get back out there for another paddle.”
Tori J. McCormick is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.