A project to restore 6½ miles of Grand Marais Creek near its outlet to the Red River north of East Grand Forks had been on the wishlist for years, Myron Jesme recalls, but funding kept the project in limbo.
The creek's meandering course had been cut off in 1905, when a legal drainage ditch about a mile long was constructed to divert water from the creek's 300-square-mile drainage area and send it on a direct course to the Red River, said Jesme, administrator of the Red Lake Watershed District in Thief River Falls.
Over time, the channel of the drainage ditch had eroded and deepened until it reached the same elevation as the Red River-a phenomenon known as "head cutting"-making the banks of the ditch unstable and prone to collapse and dumping an estimated 700 tons of sediment into the Red River every year, Jesme said.
That's enough to fill 60 to 70 tandem trucks.
At the same time, diverting water down the legal ditch impeded fish passage to Grand Marais Creek, cutting off access to spawning habitat for several Red River fish species. The creek no longer provided quality grassland and wetland habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and other wildlife.
"They dug that ditch system in 1905, and about 15 years later, the landowners realized they made a big mistake," Jesme said. "It was head-cutting within the first 5 or 10 years, and then landowners were losing land."
Restoration carries a hefty price tag, though, and there wasn't a public outcry for a project to reverse the damage, despite its potential flood control and environmental benefits, Jesme said.
And so, the project remained a pipedream.
"It was really the state and the local government units that thought this would have been a good project," he said. "That was the last component of many projects finished in the Grand Marais watershed because frankly, we thought it would never happen."
That outlook changed in November 2008, when Minnesota voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, voting with 56 percent support to implement a three-eighths of 1 percent tax increase that would be dedicated for the next 25 years to wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and trails and the arts.
For context, that's about 4 cents on every $10 purchase.
The decision by Minnesota voters to tax themselves during a period of recession and high gas prices opened doors to a pool of money that previously didn't exist for clean water and habitat projects across the state.
The Grand Marais Creek project that once was a pipedream was completed in 2015 at a cost of $6.2 million, Jesme said.
Today, the restored creek is a haven for deer, waterfowl and upland birds, and the clear water that flows into the Red River is nearly sediment-free, Jesme said. A series of seven rock "drop structures" near the outlet create riffles to help generate oxygen and improve water quality.
Construction crews also inserted "toe wood," massive logs partially buried in strategic locations along bends in the creek, to help stabilize the banks and provide habitat for various aquatic species. Upland areas were seeded into native grasses and other desirable vegetation, providing further wildlife and water quality benefits.
The watershed district worked with upwards of 12 different landowners in the project area, Jesme said, securing perpetual easements on some 400 acres of farmland through programs such as Reinvest in Minnesota-RIM, for short.
Restoring the creek outlet diverts 94 percent of a two-year flood and 49-percent of a 100-year flood.
"The landowners were awesome," Jesme said. "They'd already seen a lot of flooding, and it was more from the (Red) river. And then the big thing was that they were fairly compensated for their land. They were paid a fair price."
The water that flows into the Red River at the outlet of Grand Marais Creek now is clear and pristine, and anglers have reported catching catfish in the restored creek, Jesme said.
"The project was completed in the fall of 2015, and we do know that as of 2016, catfish were already going up that channel," he said.
Third time's a charm
It took a couple of tries, Jesme recalls, but a large chunk of the funding for the Grand Marais restoration came in the form of a $2.32 million grant in 2011 from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The panel of eight private citizens and four legislators makes funding recommendations to the Legislature on more than $100 million annually for project requests from the habitat portion of the dedicated funding package.
The council is named after former state Sen. Bob Lessard, 87, a longtime advocate of dedicated outdoors funding who championed the 2008 vote, and Dallas Sams, a state senator and outdoors advocate who died in 2007.
The concept and framework for the council, which didn't have a name at the time of the 2008 election, was set up before Minnesotans voted on the constitutional amendment, said Garry Leaf of Sportsmen for Change, a grassroots group that spearheaded the Vote Yes Minnesota campaign seeking support from hunters, anglers and conservationists.
That played a key role in the amendment's ultimate passage and its support from sportsmen, Leaf said.
"Had we not had that, I'm not sure what the results would have been exactly," Leaf said. "I can understand why people voted against it. I think the main objection was, 'Is this money really going to go where these guys claim? We've heard that before.'
"This time, it did."
Now in its 10th funding cycle, the habitat portion of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment has allocated $968,386,000 for projects across the state, said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. That includes an appropriation of nearly $114 million recently signed by Gov. Mark Dayton that becomes available July 1, Johnson said.
That money has helped put more than 1,100 projects of varying size and scope on the ground, Johnson said, everything from habitat enhancement and restoration such as the Grand Marais project to acquiring land for wildlife management areas and public access.
"I think it's nation-leading in terms of investing in habitat and conversation," Leaf, of Sportsmen for Change, said. "There are no earmarks for the $100 million. You've got to go in and compete, so the DNR competes against Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nature Conservancy, that sort of thing, and the (Lessard-Sams) council members select which ones to approve for funding."
Among the approved requests in the latest funding package is a $2 million project to restore and enhance the Two Rivers in Hallock, Minn., a Red River tributary, by modifying a lowhead dam and converting it to a rock-riffle structure that accommodates fish passage.
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, who serves on the Lessard-Sams council as chairman of the House Environmental and Natural Resources Policy Finance Committee, said the council initially recommended funding only $1.5 million of the Hallock request but eventually agreed to fund the full $2 million.
"On smaller local projects like that, we tried to fund them more aggressively," Fabian said. "We tried to give them what they asked for, and I want to do more of that in the future."
Fabian said he also would like to see more habitat money go to the Conservation Partners Legacy small grant program that's part of the outdoors funding package. Administered through the DNR, CPL grants allow local sportsmen's clubs or other entities to apply for grants up to $50,000 with a one-page application or larger projects up to $400,000 with only slightly more paperwork.
Lawmakers this year allocated $11.7 million for CPL grants in the outdoor funding package Dayton recently signed.
"It might be through a watershed or soil and water conservation district or whatever," Fabian said. "These are local people who are trying to do some good things."
Jesme said local soil and water conservation districts within the Red Lake Watershed District are among the beneficiaries of various dedicated funding grants for smaller projects. That includes $165,000 in Beltrami County, nearly $1.15 million in the West Polk SWCD, $1.7 million in the Red Lake County SWCD and more than $178,750 in the Marshall County SWCD.
Because the Lessard-Sams council only recommends funding for fish and wildlife habitat requests, the Red Lake Watershed District and its partners had to split the Grand Marais project into separate habitat and clean water components to qualify for funding, Jesme said.
Project partners also received $668,000 in Clean Water Fund money, another pot of dedicated funding, from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources for the water quality portion of the Grand Marais project, he said.
The erosion control work came first, and the habitat portion of the Grand Marais project followed as funding became available, Jesme said. The grants opened doors to an additional $4 million from various partners-12 in all-to complete the project, Jesme said, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Red Lake Watershed District, the Minnesota DNR, Reinvest in Minnesota, Polk County and others.
"Without the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council funding, I doubt this project would have gotten started or constructed," Jesme said. "It really triggered the start of generating the rest of the $4 million we needed to contribute to this project."