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Minnesota DNR Teams with St. Michael Staff to Clean Up Crow River Banks

A new way at battling bank erosion the Crow River as it winds through St. Michael is saving people's backyards, and the city some valuable cash.

A look at the before/after of the river bank reclamation project. (Provided by the Minnesota DNR)
A look at the before/after of the river bank reclamation project. (Provided by the Minnesota DNR)
In the summer of 2011, the City of St. Michael focused in on an effort to clean up the banks for the Crow River through St. Michael. 

The topic wasn't new. Then-city engineer Steve Bot (now the city's administrator) knew recent spring floods and summer rains had caused several residents to lose valuable property in their backyard in the area where Rambling Creek meets the river, just north of the Recreational Park area. 

Enter the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
An innovative project funded partially by a sales tax that voters approved five years ago–the so-called Legacy Amendment-is now helping prevent part of St. Michael from being washed away by the Crow River, and improving downstream water quality in the process.

The eroding river banks at a bend in the Crow River on the east side of St. Michael have slowly been sending tons of soil down the river and on into the Mississippi. 

The DNR and the city calculated that the erosion was worsening, threatening to wipe out a city stormwater pond. The traditional approach to the problem would entail armoring the riverbank with massive amounts of large rocks or rip-rap, an approach that’s biologically sterile and would cost millions of dollars–a high price tag for cash-strapped local units of government.

That’s when staff with the Crow River Organization of Water (CROW) contacted Nick Proulx, a DNR clean water specialist. Proulx began looking into a much cheaper method of controlling stream bank erosion that had been used successfully on the Le Sueur River in southern Minnesota and elsewhere.

“Imagine 30 dump trucks backing up to the Crow River and dumping a load of dirt into it each year,” Proulx said. “That’s how much erosion was going on before this project.”

Toe-wood stream bank stabilization, as it’s called, involves burying logs, some with root wads still attached, along the outside bend of the river, some poking up from the stream channel. Then they’re covered with soil and plantings of woody vegetation such as alder and willow, as well as grasses and sedges. The approach tries to work with a river’s flow and forces, rather than locking it in place, Proulx explained.

 It results in a more natural channel and creates floodplain, a stabilized stream bank, less erosion and sediment in the water, and better habitat for aquatic organisms.

“It’s a fairly new approach that’s gaining steam,” Proulx said. “We’re trying to demonstrate that this is a valid alternative to rip-rap, a valid approach to infrastructure protection at a much cheaper cost.”

And when Proulx said the toe-wood stabilization is “much cheaper,” that may be an understatement. A similar stream bank stabilization project using rip-rap in Delano cost $2.4 million. Price tag for the St. Michael toe-wood stabilization work: $183,000–less than one-tenth of the traditional approach. 

About $64,000 of that came from a Clean Water Legacy grant awarded to the Wright County Soil and Water Conservation District; the grant was funded by a sales tax increase approved by voters five years ago last November. The rest was paid for by CROW and the City of St. Michael. 

Proulx, who helped design the project and oversaw its construction, also is paid with Clean Water Legacy funds.

"It's a pretty significant reduction in pollution, and a big improvement in water quality," he said.

Note: Informationand segments of this story were provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

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