New habitat at Keller Creek welcomes wildlife and recreation

4-year watershed project now complete

 

The Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District recently finished a four-year project, restoring the shorelines of Keller Creek.

According to watershed district natural resources specialist Bill Bartodziej, the project’s goals were to improve water quality by controlling bank erosion, create high-quality habitat, provide access for recreation and connect natural areas like the restored habitats at Keller Golf Course and Lake Phalen. He added that he believes all of those goals have now been met.

The creek is an important part of the Phalen Chain of Lakes, as it controls the flow of water from Keller Lake into Round Lake and Lake Phalen. The majority of Keller Creek’s shoreline is owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but is actively managed by Ramsey County. 

Starting in 2015, the restoration work began by addressing the area of the creek between Highway 61 and Frost Avenue. In 2017 and 2018, the part of the creek from Frost Avenue to Round Lake was addressed.

But what left the creek in such a poor state?

Bartodziej explained that before the area was settled, Keller Creek probably flowed like a creek after the snow melted in the spring, but during dry summer months, it was probably more of a wetland. 

“In the ’20s it was dredged to facilitate navigation from Lake Phalen up to Lake Garvais, so that’s kind of what you see right now, more of a channel because of the dredging,” Bartodziej said. He explained it was likely that a steam-driven bucket dredge was driven up the creek, picking up sediment from its bed and depositing it along the bank, filling in the wetland and altering the shape of the waterway.

Before the restoration project began, turf grass and invasive species like buckthorn filled a steep but eroding bank.

“The habitat quality was quite poor just because it hasn’t been managed in a way to promote native plant communities,” Bartodziej said.

 

Creating habitat

To remedy the erosion problems, the banks were graded to be more gentle slopes, creating room for wet meadow habitat, which was nonexistent before the restoration but is important for wildlife. Bartodziej explained that emergent plants like bulrush, bur-reed and arrowhead provide cover for fish spawning in the spring.

Native prairie plants like prairie cordgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, bergamot, black-eyed Susan and various asters have taken root in the buffer zone between the wet meadow and the turf grass. Many of the plants in this buffer area are flowering plants that attract pollinators, which Bartodziej said were one of the first forms of wildlife to move back into the creek area after the restoration.

“We try to provide a mix in terms of aesthetics and habitat quality too. We want flowering to take place throughout the growing season,” he said. “In this buffer area we have a lot of prairie plants that flower in the summertime, and you can see some asters now in the fall, but in the summer it’s just brilliant colors, and it’s amazing to walk down here.”

Now more than 100 species of native plants line the shores, part of a restored habitat that has already encouraged pollinators, fish and water birds to move into the area.

“When you casually observe the buffer area you see a host of pollinators, and in the summertime butterflies are going nuts, and you see people stop and take pictures and kind of muck around in the buffer, and that’s really rewarding and fun to see,” Bartodziej said.  

He said that in addition to pollinators like bees and butterflies, he has seen bluegill, crappie and largemouth bass move into the creek from the surrounding lakes, and following the fish came heron and egrets.

He added that in addition to encouraging wildlife, the beautiful plantings encouraged fishers and boaters to check out the creek.

“We’re noticing more and more people use this waterway. There’s a ton of canoeing and kayaking taking place ... and pre-project we didn’t see a ton of that happening,” Bartodziej said.

To help make it easier for people to canoe or kayak through the Phalen Chain of Lakes, a portage was constructed to allow passage around the weir, which is used to help manage water levels in the lakes.

“This was kind of a mess pre-project. There was a lot of rock, but it wasn’t positioned in a way that people could use it as a portage, so we kind of recycled that rock ... and made steps and made it easier for people to use it as a portage,” Bartodziej said.

Chris O’Brien, communications coordinator for the Ramsey-Washington Watershed District, added that many people also use the rocks to fish from.

 

Project challenges

According to Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed materials, Keller Creek was already home to a large muskrat population before the project started, and muskrats can be a challenge for projects like this because they like to eat some of the newly planted vegetation. 

O’Brien noted that when people walk or boat along the creek, they may see some stakes in the water keeping brush bundles in place. He explained that the brush bundles were used to discourage muskrats from eating the young plants. 

“Those muskrats don’t like getting into that woody material,” O’Brien said.

Bartodziej explained that the brush bundles help protect the plants until they get established, which worked well at the Keller Creek site.

Bartodziej noted that the muskrats were not an unexpected problem and only posed moderate issues overall. “When you do a project like this, you don’t know how big of a problem it is going to be. Every site is different.”

Bartodziej explained that the project was a major undertaking both because of its size — almost a mile of shoreline — and because of the coordination required to ensure the community was able to be involved.

“Our education coordinator works with area schools to educate their biology classes mainly about water quality and ecology,” Bartodziej said, explaining that the education coordinator helped prepare students in the classroom, and then took them out to the site to help put plants into the ground. That meant too that the site needed to be safe for students and ready for the plantings.

“You don’t want kids working close to the water on steep banks and around certain hazards on site, so that was a challenge,” Bartodziej said. 

He added, “In terms of working with the public — that was super easy. We didn’t have any resistance whatsoever. It was a common feeling or view that this was really necessary.”

He said the project’s three main partners were Ramsey County, the DNR and the city of St. Paul.

Some of the schools that participated included American Indian Magnet School, Farnsworth Aerospace Academy, L’Etoile du Nord, Mounds Park Academy, Roseville Area Middle School and Weaver Elementary School.

The Conservation Corps of Minnesota, Youth Outdoors, Ramsey County Master Gardeners, a citizen advisory committee, the Landscape Ecology Awards Program and other community volunteers also participated.

Bartodziej said that he hopes to one day be able to do similar habitat restoration on the northern part of the creek and some areas around Keller Lake.

 

-Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com.

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