FERTILE, Minn.-Looking across the Sand Hill River and listening to the water rushing over the rocks and riffles, it's easy to envision zipping along in a kayak or casting a line and doing battle with channel catfish, smallmouth bass, northern pike or any number of other species that now call the river home.
It hasn't always been so.
A Red River tributary, the Sand Hill River originates in Sand Hill Lake near Lengby, Minn., flowing across the beach ridge of Glacial Lake Agassiz before dropping into the vast expanse of farmland that forms the Red River Valley.
"You get down in there, and it's a whole different world," said Dan Wilkens, administrator of the Sand Hill River Watershed District in Fertile. "It's quiet, the deer will be running around, and in the spring, the ducks and geese are just everywhere."
Up until two years ago, the Sand Hill River didn't offer much for recreation. A flood control project completed in 1954 to straighten and channelize the river included four concrete "drop structures," essentially small dams, to control the flow of water and minimize erosion downstream of Fertile where the river drops out of the beach ridge.
Over time, significant erosion occurred along the channel, and the banks of the altered river began to fail in several places. The concrete structures also impeded passage of Red River fish species that historically spawned in upper reaches of the Sand Hill River.
Severe drought in the 1980s killed off any game fish species that remained in the river upstream from the dams, Wilkens said. That was confirmed by fish surveys the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conducted.
"The dams functionally blocked fish species from moving up into that high-quality habitat area," said Jamison Wendel, Red River fisheries biologist for the DNR. "It was a heck of a creek chub fishery. There may have been a state record creek chub out there, but beyond that, there was not much of a fishery for anything."
Classified by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as impaired for turbidity, the Sand Hill River today is a river in recovery, thanks to a multi-agency project to reconnect the river by removing the drop structures and installing a series 16 rock-riffles and two rock arch rapids along a 5-mile stretch of river between Fertile and Beltrami, Minn. The rock-riffles, designed to accommodate fish passage while reducing flow velocity and improving water quality, have produced tangible results since work wrapped up in October 2016.
"This spring, we did a fish survey just above the modified dams, and we already found channel catfish, smallmouth bass, northern pike and some other large river species," Wendel said. "I think we had them up to 20 miles already. Just within the one year, fish were moving upstream of the dam.
"This is creating fishing opportunities throughout the watershed that just were not there for the last 30 years."
On a recent crisp fall morning, several project partners toured the Sand Hill River to see the restoration work firsthand. Besides Wilkens and Wendel, partners onhand for the tour were Nicole Bernd, district manager of the West Polk Soil and Water Conservation District in Crookston; April Swenby, administrative assistant of the Sand Hill River Watershed District; Wayne Goeken, a kayak enthusiast and retired director of the Red River Basin RiverWatch program; and Mark Johnson, a Fertile native and executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
"It's beautiful-I haven't been out here since they were doing construction," Bernd said. "What's neat with this is there are so many different partners involved. And I know in our realm, the more partners you have, the better off you are in getting projects started and implemented, and agencies are looking for that."
The Sand Hill River Watershed District initiated the project in February 2014, contacting the West Polk Soil and Water Conservation District to collaborate and partner in applying for a Clean Water Legacy grant.
The Board of Water and Soil Resources-BWSR, for short-awarded a $475,000 grant in January 2015. In addition, the watershed district provided more than $118,000 in matching funds, and a $100,000 Ecofootprint Grant from Enbridge Inc., further offset costs for the water quality part of the project, Bernd said.
"That really helped out quite a bit," Bernd said. "They were pretty excited about the whole project and what it consisted of."
West Polk SWCD is the grant recipient and administrator.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funded 75 percent of the project's cost of nearly $7.6 million, while the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council funded 25 percent of the fish passage component, providing the Minnesota DNR with more than $1.9 million in two phases for removing the four dams.
Funding for the Outdoor Heritage and Clean Water grants comes from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment that Minnesota voters approved in 2008.
"That was one thing through this whole process was to make sure the Clean Water Legacy funding was for water quality improvements, and Lessard-Sams funding through DNR is for fish and wildlife habitat so the two components can work together side by side," Bernd said. "It worked out really well."
Wendel, the Red River biologist who worked with the Lessard-Sams council on fish passage, said completing the project would have been difficult without the two pots of dedicated funding from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.
"I've worked in other states, and it's hard to even consider tackling a project of this size, a project requiring $4 million just to modify the dams," he said. "I'm not saying this is easy-it still presents challenges-but when you're able to leverage $3 federal for every $1 of Outdoor Heritage funds, it makes projects like this much more realistic to get accomplished."
In more than 40 years with the Sand Hill River Watershed District, Wilkens says the restoration is the largest environmental project he's been involved with. From landowner buy-in to working with the contractor, Spruce Valley Corp., of Middle River, Minn., the project went smoothly, he said.
Construction began in August 2016 and wrapped up about two months later.
"It really works so great having Nicole at West Polk and Wendel (of the DNR) partner on all of this," Wilkens said. "It was working with really great people, and we just didn't have any problems at all along the way, which normally you have for projects like this."
The improvements have resulted in a "tremendous uptick" in kayaking along the Sand Hill River, Goeken said.
"You go around Fertile in the summer, a lot of vehicles have kayaks in back of them," Goeken said. "We also hear a lot of people talking, and they're really excited about the fish passage. They recall days gone by and good fishing in the river and are really looking forward to the improvements."
The project came in under budget, and remaining funds will be used for additional improvements on the river, Wilkens said. According to a July 2017 update from BWSR, about $1.2 million in Lessard-Sams funding remains for fish passage and fish habitat, while about $246,000 in Clean Water money will go toward projects such as additional riffles downstream to further improve water quality.
Monitoring also will be part of the process once additional work is complete, Bernd said.
"There are many kinds of monitoring efforts that can be done," she said. "Ultimately, Clean Water Legacy funding is everybody's funding, and people want to know, 'Is it making a difference?' That's the plan."
As executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, Johnson said success stories such as the Sand Hill River restoration are the goal of every habitat project the council recommends to the Legislature for funding.
Revisiting his old stomping grounds and seeing the project for himself had been on his agenda for more than a year, Johnson says.
"This one is real personal to me because I used to run my motor scooter right up and down this road and fish all this when I was a kid, each one of the dams," Johnson said. "And it's just so exciting for me to see it the way I had hoped it would turn out. It's going to be better than it ever was in my life previously.
"But other than that, just hearing the successes and seeing all the people involved and all the collaboration that's part of this, that's the exciting part for me," he added. "We got local buy-in, local excitement and just incredible things happened."