Published October 18, 2012, 12:00 AM

Floods wreaked torrent of trouble in Duluth trout streams; city starting to eye repairs

Up until now, Duluth’s flood recovery efforts have focused primarily on fixing basic infrastructure, including washed out roads, bridges and culverts. But the battle now is moving to a less obvious front — stabilizing and repairing the 16 designated trout streams that course through town.

By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune

Up until now, Duluth’s flood recovery efforts have focused primarily on fixing basic infrastructure, including washed out roads, bridges and culverts. But the battle now is moving to a less obvious front — stabilizing and repairing the 16 designated trout streams that course through town.

A fix won’t come cheap, said Chris Kleist, a program coordinator for the Duluth Department of Public Works and Utilities.

“All we have is ballpark estimates right now, and it will be difficult to say until the engineers get in there to have a look. But we have 16 trout streams, and we could easily spend $1 million per stream,” he said. “Chester, Miller and Mission creeks have some big slides, so they’ll probably cost more.”

The streams are important not only to the fish that swim in them, said Kathy Bergen, director of Duluth’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“Our streams are used for two main purposes. First, for handling the city’s storm water runoff, but they also have a very strong recreational component,” she said. “Many of our larger streams run through parks. … So the health of streams is very important to the health of our park system.”

Bergen characterized the scale of damage to Duluth’s trout streams and adjacent trails as “mind-boggling.”

On Monday, the Duluth City Council will be asked to approve $100,000 contracts with two firms — Barr Engineering and LimnoTech — to assess local trout streams and begin developing a possible action plan.

Because of the large scope of the task, the city decided to hire two teams, with Barr assigned to examine streams east of Seventh Avenue West and LimnoTech assigned to waterways west of that dividing line.

The city will seek reimbursement for the consulting expenses, as well as money to tackle the actual work, from a variety of state and federal sources.

Next week, the city’s request for funding must be sent to the Minnesota Recovers Task Force, which is empowered by the state Legislature to provide up to $12.5 million to repair flood-damaged land, streams and related infrastructure.

Additional money will be provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I’m pretty confident that a lot of it will be covered. Given the support we’ve received from the state and FEMA, I’m not too concerned the city will bear a big part of the cost. But time will tell,” Kleist said.

Meanwhile, he said the city must push ahead.

With fall water levels low, Kleist said: “Our access is pretty good right now. We want to get in and remove any problem debris before the spring thaw.”

Kleist said the city also wants to provide cover for exposed soils susceptible to further erosion.

“In places, we’ll be looking at doing some winter seeding that could help hold soil in place,” said Carol Andrews, a senior environmental engineer with Barr.

“We’re identifying problem areas, prioritizing jobs, looking for funding sources and fixing what requires our immediate attention, all at the same time,” Kleist said.

Streams not just for fish

The first course of action will involve identifying the immediate steps that should be taken to reduce the risk of follow-on flooding or damage, with a particular eye to maintaining public safety, said Gini Breidenbach, a senior engineer with LimnoTech.

Developing a long-range plan for the streams’ recovery will take more time.

“We need to look at each of these streams with their watersheds and consider the points of view of the different stakeholders, so we can come up with a more comprehensive approach to dealing with the issues we find,” Breidenbach said.

Kleist said the city will consult with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, anglers, trail users and concerned citizens as it develops its stream plans. He noted that the fate of man-made ponds that washed out in Chester and Enger parks will probably be a subject of extensive discussion.

By slowing the flow of streams, ponds can drive up water temperatures and reduce oxygen levels that are critical to the survival of sensitive species such as brook trout, said Dave Zentner, national director for the Izaak Walton League and member of the McCabe Chapter in Duluth. But he was quick to acknowledge that the needs and desires of all parties should be considered in determining whether ponds should be restored in some fashion or whether streams should be returned to more of a natural state.

“We realize streams don’t function just for fish, they function for a variety of purposes,” Zentner said. “The question is: How do we work together on a vision for our parks and green spaces?”

Dealing with the extensive damage from June’s flood feels a bit overwhelming to Zentner, but he said: “When nature really lets us have it like this, it’s also an opportunity for a new beginning.”

Causing more damage

Andrews said sediments the flood dislodged have harmed trout habitat and may warrant removal in places. But she noted that streams are dynamic by nature, and human intervention isn’t always a good thing.

“We need to carefully consider what would and would not benefit from man-made assistance, such as the creation of a few pools and riffles,” Andrews said.

“Sometimes intervening can be harmful. We want to make sure we’re not inadvertently causing more damage to a stream,” she said.

Kleist said the advice the city gleans from engineers and other experts will be helpful, but a collaborative discussion involving the whole community is essential to developing a successful plan for Duluth’s damaged trout streams.

“We recognize these are not our streams, they’re everyone’s streams,” he said.