Marengo Riffles Issue 4 - 2023

As winter is setting in and we’re all beginning to hunker down, we are pleased to issue our fourth edition of Marengo Riffles. In this issue we’re looking back at an Ashland Land and Water Conservation led restoration project on Tody Creek this summer and forward to new funding opportunities through the Headwaters to Coast Initiative. Both the Tody Creek Project and opportunities offered through Headwaters to Coast support work towards accomplishing objectives outlined in the Marengo River Watershed Action Plan.

Ashland County’s Natural Flood Management Pilot Project on Tody Creek

Much of the Marengo River watershed is characterized by stream channels that have been eroded deeply into the ground (incised), disconnecting them from surrounding natural floodplain zones that originally absorbed bank overflow floodwaters and slowed their downstream release.

Channel incision from erosion.

During precipitation events, water rushes down these channels largely unimpeded, carving the channel deeper and further eroding streambanks, resulting in damage to property, roads, and culverts.

Tody Creek project site channel (Seth Hackbarth, Ashland Co. LWCD).

To demonstrate the feasibility of controlling flooding through restoring incised stream channels by reconnecting them to their natural floodplains, the Ashland County Land and Water Conservation Department (LWCD), working in collaboration with the Wisconsin Wetlands Association (WWA), US-Geological Survey (USGS), WDNR, and others, undertook a pilot restoration project on Tody Creek (a Marengo River tributary) in White River Township. Flooding events in 2016 and 2018 have left the creek incised four to six feet below the floodplain, meaning that only extreme flood events (100 year or greater) would result in water levels high enough to overflow the channel and inundate the natural floodplain zone.

Reconnection of streams to floodplains is part of a strategy known as Natural Flood Management, where the ultimate goal is “re-plumbing” the landscape to take advantage of its original wetland and groundwater features to capture and more gradually release floodwaters, reducing erosion damage, fish and other wildlife habitat loss, and reducing excessive sedimentation of streams and Lake Superior.

Example of watershed-scale Natural Flood Management planning (WWA).
Emma Holtan (SRWA) directs Ashland Co. LWCD interns during water chemistry sampling

Prior to construction, a flow monitoring camera was installed by Ashland Co. LWCD and USGS, and water chemistry and macroinvertebrate samples were collected by SRWA.

To raise the channel water level and reconnect it with the floodplain, small log dams known as post-assisted log structures (PALs), and water level-controlling structures called rock riffles would be installed on an 850 foot stretch of the creek. Construction began on October 10th, with a total of 11 post-assisted log structures (PALs) and two rock riffle structures installed in the creek. 

PAL installation (Kyle Magyera, WWA).

Post-construction site assessment was undertaken using portable digital elevation modeling gear to begin tracking stream channel changes. Site restoration was completed with installation of erosion matting and seeding of disturbed areas. Higher water levels have already been noted this fall, and more dramatic changes should be seen during next year’s spring thaw period and spring thunderstorm season. This project is a great example of relatively low-cost restorative activities that can yield big dividends in reducing property and infrastructure loss, and further degradation of stream and upland habitats. While no single tactic is a “magic bullet” for fixing our regional flooding and erosion issues, well-informed application of a number of strategies-validated through pilot project demonstrations such as this one-will definitely get the job done!

The project was funded through grants from the Great Lakes Protection Fund (through WDNR Office of Great Waters), and 2019 ACT 157 legislative allocation (via WDNR). 

Full project partner list: WWA, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USGS, WDNR, UW-Madison Extension, WI Dept. of Agriculture, Trade, & Consumer Protection, multiple private landowners, Townships of White River and Marengo, Trout Unlimited, Mashkiiziibii Natural Resources Department, WI Emergency Management, and the Lake Superior Collaborative.

Construction services were provided by K&N Excavating, Ashland.

Big thanks to Seth Hackbarth (Ashland County LWCD) and Kyle Magyera (WWA) for providing background information and images for this article!

The Headwaters to Coast Initiative: Benefits for the Marengo River Watershed

We hear a lot these days about threats to our environment-vital resources like water, soil, and air, biodiversity, quality of life, and more. While it’s important to stay informed on such matters, it’s also important to be aware of positive news and promising programs on the horizon. Yes, encouraging developments are out there! One new funding program that will have a direct impact on Lake Superior basin environmental issues is the Headwaters to Coast (H2C) Initiative, organized by the US-Fish and Wildlife Service (US-FWS) and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). Using federal funding resources through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, H2C’s mission statement is:  

To bring people together to prioritize and coordinate conservation projects that meet the ecological, social, and cultural needs of current and future generations in Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Basin.

The program is engaging regional partner agencies and organizations to collaboratively develop a “Conservation Blueprint” for the south shore region of the Lake Superior basin. This will be a strategy to achieve sustainable ecological goals that are inclusive of socioeconomic and cultural needs of present and future stakeholders. The core planning team includes US-FWS, WDNR, the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation- Northland College, Trout Unlimited, and others. Two information-gathering sessions were held in May and June to begin the process of prioritizing issues and identifying project goals.

How will this benefit the Marengo River watershed? First of all, a management plan (Marengo River Watershed Partnership Action Plan) has been in place for the last 10 years and was recently updated and revised for the coming decade. This document provides guidance for local government and natural resource partners by identifying and prioritizing environmental issues in the watershed, suggesting pathways to address the issues, and identifying funding sources for projects. Many of the prioritized issues in the Marengo watershed plan are recognized as priority regional issues in the H2C planning process. Some examples are:

  • Fragmentation of terrestrial and aquatic habitats
  • Sedimentation and water quality 
  • Runoff and erosion impacts
  • Infrastructure issues (undersized/failing culverts, aging bridges, and noncompliant septic systems)
  • Drinking water supply and quality
  • Aquatic and terrestrial invasive species  
  • Climate Change (increased flooding magnitude and frequency, increased surface water and air temperatures, lake level impacts)
  • Land use practices (agriculture, development, mining)
  • Priority wildlife and plant species (Manoomin (wild rice), brook trout, bats, wood turtle, pine marten, northern goshawk, wood thrush, woodcock, and others)

The guiding values of the program identified by partners at the planning sessions included: 

  • Proactive resource protection  
  • Landowner and community engagement
  • Outreach, education, and communication
  • Cultural inclusivity
  • Application of traditional ecological knowledge
  • Partnerships and collaboration

Next steps: Early next year, teams focusing on each of the conservation priorities listed above will identify a key quality indicator-a species, habitat, or resource of concern-which will be the focal point for developing a conservation strategy. Maps and other data tools will be developed, and project proposals will be submitted to the U.S.-FWS or other funding partners in late 2024. Project completion would be in late 2025 or beyond, depending on the scale of the project.

A big thank you to Bridget Olson (US-Fish and Wildlife Service) for information on the H2C initiative!

Other News and Announcements

  • On February 10th The Bayfield Landmark Conservancy and Friends of the Lincoln Community Forest are hosting a Nordic Ski and Snowshoe at the Lincoln Community Forest from 1-4 pm.

Do you want to contribute to our bi-annual Marengo Riffles Newsletter? Do you have a story, event, or information to share about the Marengo River Watershed? Email us at info @ superiorrivers.org to submit a piece for our Autumn or Spring edition!

Do you want to support this work? We rely on donors to support our Marengo River Plan.

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