DRIFTLESS - It was a gorgeous mid-October day on Tuesday, October 16, when the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Project’s tour bus loaded in the parking lot of Thiesen’s Hardware in Sparta. Sixty-five trout fishing and stream restoration enthusiasts joined the tour to view improvements made to Beaver Creek in Monroe County, and Weister Creek in the Kickapoo Valley in Vernon County.
The topline take away from the tour, beyond the joyous enthusiasm for trout fishing, was the multiple benefits Trout Unlimited (TU) restoration efforts provide to the local communities where they work. Those benefits include flood mitigation, increased local use and an infusion of tourism dollars into the local economies.
Because trout thrive best in clean, cold, spring-fed creeks, they function as a “canary in the coulees.” When trout do well, humans in the same environments will enjoy cleaner surface and groundwater–and all the fun of trout fishing too.
Spearheaded by Trout Unlimited, the Driftless Area Restoration Effort (DARE), is a geographically focused, locally driven, consensus-based effort to protect, restore, and enhance rivers and streams for fish and other aquatic life.
Interestingly enough, the work of sloping the banks of trout streams to correct problems from erosion and valley sediment build up, to improve access, has also proven to be a significant flood mitigation measure. When water is channeled in a narrow corridor, moving down a sloped grade, it picks up speed and increases exponentially in destructiveness.
“When you double the velocity of water, you increase its power to move things by 64 times,” according to retired DNR fisheries biologist Dave Vetrano.
By sloping the banks, and eliminating deep vertical creek bank walls, the restoration projects reconnect the stream with its natural floodplain. This allows water running off in large rain events to spread out and slow down, reducing damage to the creek, roads and bridges.
And as if improved fishing and flood mitigation weren’t sufficient rewards, restoration of the area’s world-class fishery has also had a positive bottom-line impact on the area’s economy.
“There are 6,000 miles of cold-water streams in the 42 counties and four states of the Driftless Region,” TUDARE Outreach Coordinator Duke Welter said. “Trout fishing has been shown to have a $1.6 billion annual economic impact, which helps to make our local economies stronger.”
Beaver Creek is a medium size spring-fed tributary of the La Crosse River near Sparta in west central Monroe County. Both East Beaver and West Beaver Creeks merge to become Beaver Creek, which flows in a southeasterly direction for approximately 3.5 miles. Beaver Creek is a Class I trout stream for its entire length, upgraded from Class II since the 1974 survey. The stream is a Brown and Brook Trout fishery.
Some of the 1.3 miles of improved sections of Beaver Creek lie within the boundaries of the City of Sparta. Restoration initiatives have improved those stretches, and led to increased use within the city limits, and more green space.
The restoration work is a partnership between the City, Monroe County Land Conservation Department, area sportsmen’s clubs, Oak Brook and Coulee TU chapters, the Sparta School District, and local citizens.
“When I moved back to Sparta, the first things off the moving truck were my bike and my dad’s fly fishing rod,” Mayor of Sparta Ron Button told tour participants. “The first time I went out fishing, I caught the biggest trout of my life.”
Button told participants that when he got the chance as mayor to support the restoration project, he jumped at it.
“This restoration project is one of our city’s proudest achievements,” Button said. “We have created a wonderful asset that will continue to benefit our citizens and visitors for generations into the future.”
One of the hallmark features of the restoration in Sparta are the seven covered bridges scattered throughout the downtown area of the city.
“With the addition of the bridges, we now have the ‘three B’s’ covered in Sparta,” Monroe County conservationist Bob Micheel joked. “That would be bars, banks and bridges. The bridges ensure that residents and visitors have access to the creek everywhere in the city.”
Monroe County Land Conservation Department Soil and Water Conservationist Christine Mulder talked about the work the department did in the municipal part of the Beaver Creek Watershed.
“Sixteen landowners within the city worked with us and provided easements to allow public access,” Mulder explained. “All of the debris removed went to the city compost site, and we installed 575 feet of riprap to the high water mark, and lunkers and weirs.”
Although 20-year contracts for easements used to be more common in the past, now the trend is for perpetual easements.
“When the landowner donates a perpetual easement to Monroe County, they benefit through the City of Sparta paying for the restoration work,” Welter explained. “Even better, the landowner also realizes the benefit of ongoing maintenance.”
The work is continuing further up in the watershed in rural areas as well. Once completed, the restoration will connect the City of Sparta section to the Monroe County Farm, which is used for educational purposes by the Sparta School District. The work will be completed in 2019. Lunkers used in the project were built by local schools and TU volunteers.
“Before we started the work, the creek banks were vertical,” Micheel explained. “Now, they are sloped and we have corrected gullies feeding into the creek with a pipe outlet.”
The project has also benefitted the city by supporting their phosphorous reduction goals as required by the State of Wisconsin to comply with the U.S. EPA Clean Water Act.
“Sparta was the first municipality in the State of Wisconsin to implement a phosphorous trading plan,” Micheel explained. “Part of that plan involves receiving credits for stream restoration work, which is paid for by the city and private partners. The best part is, when the city receives the phosphorous credits, then ongoing maintenance is required and funded.”
Micheel said that instead of a ‘hit and run’ restoration effort, he likes the fact that with the Sparta project, his team is able to provide ongoing maintenance.
According to the WDNR ‘Water Quality Trading How To Manual,’ Water Quality Trading (WQT) may be used by municipal and industrial Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit holders to demonstrate compliance with water quality-based effluent limitations (WQBELs).
Generally, trading involves a point source facing relatively high pollutant reduction costs compensating another party to achieve less costly pollutant reduction with the same or greater water quality benefit. In other words, trading provides point sources, such as the City of Sparta, with the flexibility to acquire pollutant reductions from other sources in the watershed to offset their point source load so that they will comply with their own permit requirements.
“The system works by giving Sparta a 2:1 trade on phosphorous reduction, with the city paying for the cost of restoration projects,” Micheel explained. “Sparta receives a one pound credit for each three pounds of phosphorous reduced elsewhere in the watershed by another partner.”
On the tour, it was a tale of two streams, each of which had vastly different experiences in the catastrophic rain and flood events on August 27-28. Driving over the watershed divide from the LaCrosse River Watershed into the Kickapoo Watershed, the aftereffects of the recent flooding became immediately apparent.
The catastrophic rains of August 27-28 along the Monroe-Vernon County border had fallen south of the Beaver Creek Watershed, but travelled south to heavily impact the Kickapoo River Watershed.
“We estimate that there was $1.5 million in damages to streams and public infrastructure,” LaCrosse Area WDNR Trout Habitat Team Leader Mike Leonard said. “Many of the creeks have scoured and rerouted after the rains and flooding, one manure lagoon was threatened, and it will take years or decades to restore.”
Weister Creek, the next stop on the tour, did comparatively well in the flooding. The creek is located in central Vernon County, flows in a southeasterly direction for 7.8 miles before reaching the Kickapoo River north of La Farge. This stream drains forested hillsides, agricultural valleys and ridge tops as well as a portion of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR). Weister Creek is a Class III trout stream for its entire length, and contains brown trout and numerous forage fish species.
In partnership with the Kickapoo Valley Reserve and the Ho-Chunk Nation, TUDARE has worked on a 2.6-mile restoration project along the creek. The project has been conducted in phases, starting in 2015, and is scheduled for completion in 2019.
In the areas where the restoration work had been completed, including installation of lunkers and other fishing-friendly structures, sloping of the creek bank, planting the creek banks into native perennial vegetation, and reconnecting the creek to its native floodplain, the project area had weathered the flooding incredibly well. The well-established vegetation laid down when the floodwaters went through, but the roots helped to hold the stream banks intact.
“Overall, we started the project upstream, and are working our way down,” explained KVR Board President and Project Coordinator Paul Hayes. “In each section, we would start our work downstream and work our way up,”
Hayes explained that due to what he describes as “social considerations,” the project will restore some sections of the creek and leave others downstream untouched.
“We’ve adopted this compromise to be sure to take into consideration the preference of some local residents for the unrestored character of the stream,” Hayes said. “Other compromises we’ve made to be responsive to social considerations include adding a walking trail which can become problematic during flooding, adding a parking lot, adding hitching posts for Amish fishers, and controlling beavers.”
KVR Director Marcy West talked to tour participants about the history of the 8,569-acre KVR property, owned by the State of Wisconsin and the Ho-Chunk Nation, and managed by a citizen board.
“When Jeff Hastings and the crew did the initial restoration work here in the 1990s, all of the archaeological studies needed for the project were completed,” Hayes explained. “Those same studies are thus in place for the current project as well.”
Hayes explained that the funding for this project comes in large part from TU chapters that don’t have good trout streams, but have trout fishers interested in contributing to restoration efforts in areas that do.
Private financial contributions for the final phase of the project came to about $116,000. Large donations augmenting funds available from the Inland Trout Stamp, were received from the Black Hawk, Lee Wulff and Elliott Donnelley TU Chapters, the Vernon County Ho-Chunk Nation, the KVR and Organic Valley. In all, about 20 groups and individuals have contributed, and the funds are administered through the Vernon County Land Conservation Department.
“The goal of the project is to create 80-acres of contiguous hardwood forest, and to promote fishing as well as non-game habitat,” Hayes explained. “In addition to financial contributions, our Ho-Chunk partners have also contributed expertise with highly trained biologists and state-of-the-art equipment.”