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Work is completed on Conway Creek streambank restoration
In Star Valley
Conway Creek Project in Star Valley
THIS IS A VIEW of the newly restored reach of Conway Creek, above the bridge in Star Valley. No question, this is an angler’s dream. WDNR’s fisheries biologist Kirk Olson reports that Conway Creek was classified as a Class I trout stream in 2020 based on a electrofishing surveys completed prior to the habitat work.

STAR VALLEY - The two-phase streambank restoration project in Star Valley on Tainter and Conway creeks is now completed. The restored banks of the two creeks, enhanced with trout habitat structures now stands as a lasting legacy to Ernest Rayner, Sr., who authorized the work by the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TUDARE).

The Rayners were honored this year at the Conservation Awards at the Crawford County Fair. Ernest Rayner, Jr., was on-hand to accept the 2021 Water Quality Award on behalf of his father, who passed in 2019, just before the project was completed.

The Tainter Creek portion of the project, overseen by Paul Krahn, cost $140,000, and was funded from a public grant, and private donations from other Trout Unlimited chapters and more. In the project, 3,320 feet or 0.63 miles of stream were improved.

“Ernie Rayner decided that he wanted to leave his land better than he found it for the next generation,” TUDARE’s Duke Welter said. “After talking with neighbor Bruce Ristow, Ernie sold a permanent easement for fishing to the DNR, and from there we were able to work with public and private funding sources to secure the $140,000 needed to complete the project.”

Former TUDARE employee Duke Welter explained why their group is interested in doing projects along Tainter Creek. He said that the headwaters of Tainter Creek are largely protected by the land use in the area, with the upper portions are mostly wooded hillsides. He pointed out that there is not a lot of row crop plantings above most of the tributaries, which reduces runoff of water and nutrients, and emphasized that the existence of a group of conservation-minded farmers like the members of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council is also a big plus.

“Restoration efforts along Tainter Creek, like other major tributaries of the Kickapoo River, provide good conditions for a healthy trout fishery,” Welter said. “The water, from spring-fed sources, is always cold with a steady, high flow, and the limestone and sandstone bedrock that the water is filtered through provides nutrients that create fertile conditions for water plants, insects and crustaceans that trout rely on for food.”

Conway Creek project

The work on the Conway Creek portion of the project began soon after the Tainter project on the same property was completed in August of 2019. Conway Creek flows down the Latham Road valley, along the west side of the Rayner property, and joins Tainter Creek in Star Valley.  Conway Creek is a cold-water stream that is fed by multiple springs within a quarter mile segment, so the water quality is very high.

“Conway Creek was targeted for a restoration because it had undergone severe streambank and in-stream habitat loss after recent historic flooding events,” Krahn explained.  “The stream corridor was lined with box elder trees, which shade out soil-holding grasses and make the streambank more susceptible to erosion.”

Krahn says that annual streambank soil loss is estimated to be 286 tons per year. He said that many of the deeper pools that existed prior to the floods were filled in with rubble, and trees had fallen into the creek, causing further streambank erosion.  

Krahn said the stream segment that has been improved on Conway Creek is 1,550 feet long, and ends at the confluence with Tainter Creek, which is a Class I trout stream.  Conway Creek is unclassified, but is a cold-water trout stream, and because of the TUDARE project, will be classified by the Department of Natural Resources. 

“The current landowner’s, Ernest Jr. and Gabe Rayner (father and son) were so impressed with how the Tainter Creek project turned out that they asked for help with restoring Conway Creek,” Krahn said.  “They signed a perpetual public fishing easement with the State of Wisconsin DNR, for which they received a one-time payment.  The public easement is required for Trout Unlimited to donate funds to a project.”

Krahn explained that the next step in moving the project along was to have the Rayners sign-up for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  This is special program that partners with NRCS and other conservation groups with the goal of improving cold-water streams in the Driftless Region. The Rayner project was accepted and contracted with NRCS in July of 2021.

Work begins

Krahn surveyed, designed, and obtained permits for this project. The project was opened for bids in the spring of 2021.  They had seven local contractors bid on the project, with bids ranging from $98,735 - $66,895.  The low bid submitted by Dudenbostel Excavating LLC, and they were the contractor selected. The Dudenbostel brothers, Ian and Evan, had worked the summer before with Krahn on a project on their family’s farm on Citron Creek.

  The Conway Creek project began on June 14, and was completed on July 1, 2021.  

Specifics of the project include:

• over 1,550 feet of a cold-water trout stream was stabilized and enhanced with fish habitat structures and now has public fishing access

• 10 eroding streambanks were stabilized with rock riprap and grass establishment 

• three-and-one-half acres of trees were cleared, and the area was seeded back to cold season grasses with seeding enhanced for pollinators

• 2,110 feet of streambank was shaped.

• an estimated 500 cubic yards of soil was hauled out of the floodplain.

• two cross-channel logs were installed to stabilize rock riffles and create a permanent deep pool for fish

• 10 loge deflects (root wads) were installed throughout to provide overhead cover and deep pools

• 25 boulders were placed in-stream to provide habitat variation and resting places for fish

• one escape log was placed for turtles and shore birds to utilize, and this also adds overhead cover for trout

• fisher access gates in fences were installed.

• public fishing signage was placed along the stretch.

Catastrophic rainfall

During construction after six sites had been completed, the project suffered from a six-to-seven inch rainfall event.  The event, which came overnight on June 26, also clobbered the similar project on the Dudenbostel property on Citron Creek. In that area, the rain event had produced even larger rainfall amounts of 10-12 inches, all coming in six hours or less. Nevertheless, the Dudenbostels were back at work the next week after helping to clean things up at home.

“The heavy rain caused the loss of some soil, seeding and mulch which had to be repaired,” Krahn remembered.  “We did add some additional trout habitat and rock riprap during construction.  The final cost of the project was $73,283, and the project stayed within budget even with repairs and a few extra stream improvements.”

For the project, the DNR used stewardship funds to pay for the easement. Major funding for the project came from NRCS EQIP-RCPP, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Outdoor Fund, Crawford County Conservation Aids, and the Elliot Donnelley, Blackhawk, Coulee Region, and  Oak Brook Trout Unlimited chapters.

Water reclassified

WDNR fisheries biologist Kirk Olson reports that Conway Creek had already been reclassified as as a Class I trout stream in 2020, based on a electrofishing surveys completed prior to the habitat work.

“We did evaluate the companion-project habitat work on Tainter Creek just downstream of County Highway C in 2021,” Olson said. “That habitat work was completed in 2018.”

Olson said his team saw a substantial increase in brown trout numbers after the habitat restoration work, from 678 to 3,408 Brown Trout per mile. 

“Though Brown Trout densities appear to have increased across the area this year, the level of increase we saw in this reach exceeded that of nearby streams,” Olson explained. “This indicates that the increase we observed was not because of normal variation in trout numbers from year to year.”

Olson said thatBrook Trout were present in low numbers (53 per mile) before the habitat work, and declined after to four per mile.  

“The decline in Brook Trout may have been ongoing before the project, as we've seen Brook Trout declines in some nearby streams, or the increase in Brown Trout may be to blame,” Olson said. “We're continually evaluating habitat restoration techniques, and trying to find ways to do habitat work that benefits Brook Trout (Wisconsin's only native stream trout) over Brown Trout, but, so far, there is no clear answer on what the best approach is.”