Sunday, August 06, 2006
A walk in Sand Creek
For being the title feature of this blog, you would think that Sand Creek would be a regular feature here. As it is, I have rarely mentioned or photographed this water, this connection to the St. Croix and Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. Why do I not devote more blog space to Sand Creek?
For one thing, as evidenced in the above photo, Sand Creek is not very photogenic. There are no waterfalls, no rapids, no crystal blue shimmering pools. Sand Creek is a ditch. Really. It is still legally considered a county ditch although I know of no agricultural connections to it in the entire watershed. The natural watercourse was straightened in 1918, a time when speculators were trying to entice farmers to the logged-off land here. Straightened creeks are not happy creeks; they yearn to meander freely. Yet Sand Creek adapted better than most, soaking up flow from numerous springs in the area and creating habitat that supported native brook trout within the ditch banks.
Another reason is that Sand Creek is not very accessible. To get to the creek today I walked through the horse pasture, out the back gate, through a tangle of alder and willow with stinging nettle and thistle here and there, up over a steep former railroad crossing, down to the water which is heavily guarded by more alder and willow. I could have walked out to the road, taken a little access driveway on the other side of the creek, walked along the north bank a ways to where low grasses grow up to the stream bank. But I favored the direct route, through the brush.
It was an easy walk as far as streams go; no slippery boulders, very slow current, no deep mucky pools. There was the occasional remains of an old beaver dam, which gave the benefit of diversity; where there was an old dam, the stream narrowed and gained velocity, carving a pool directly below. The substrate was mostly sand, with some crunchy gravel areas which provide good spawning habitat for brook trout. The last time my coworkers shocked this stretch of stream, they found a few adult brookies. Today they were probably in the shady areas along the right side of the picture.
Today's walk, however, was for a deeper reason than mere blog fodder. I wanted to wade the creek, experience it close hand, so I could better try to understand a disturbing trend I've witnessed the last year or two: the water is getting more cloudy. Three years ago, the first spring we lived here, I walked the north creek bank and could look through the water and see brook trout redds (nests) on the gravel bottom of the creek. The water, although brown-colored from tannic acid, which is produced naturally in soft water swamps, was very clear. This year, during spring runoff and a period of base groundwater flow from extreme drought, the water has remained distinctly cloudy.
It should not look like this. I should be able to see the bottom here. Somewhere upstream, sediment is washing into the creek. Looking at the land ownership and use, I'm guessing that some logging took place in the last two years on private land, and the loggers did not follow Best Management Practices, which would be applied on public land, to avoid impacts to the stream. Or it could have been removal of a large beaver dam, but the effect of that would not have lasted as long as this has been happening. I was noticing the turbidity as early as last year.
This is what it should look like. The Hermit and I took a ride today to a road crossing about a mile upstream, then to one maybe five stream miles upstream. This is the latter; the water is brown, but distinctly clear, much clearer than where Sand Creek flows through our land. So whatever it is that's causing the turbidity is happening a few miles upstream, below the upper road crossing.
I can't let this sit. I am concerned about the effects on the few brook trout that inhabit the stream; they are sight feeders, they need cold, clear water to survive. Excessive sediment in the water will choke their spawning areas, cause water temperatures to rise to lethal levels for trout, and make it difficult for trout to find food.
I work for the very state agency that is responsible for the stewardship of Sand Creek, a designated trout stream. I am going to bring this up to my supervisor tomorrow, although I'm not very optimistic about a prompt response. But I will persist; this is my home watershed, this is a creek that someone has to care about, this is a creek that I care very much about. It deserves better than to be suffocated by bad land management.