2012 floods devastated NE Minnesota's environment; sustainable solutions planned

Swinging bridge
Wreckage of the swing bridge over the St. Louis River at Jay Cooke State Park can be seen after last year's floods. Along with homes, communities and infrastructure, the regions environment took a beating from the deluge.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

The widespread flooding that hit northeastern Minnesota one year ago wiped away roads and bridges and damaged schools, businesses and homes.

But the downpour also significantly damaged the environment. Nearly all of the streams that flow through the city of Duluth were damaged from the torrent of water that carried rocks and trees through parts of town.

In Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood near the St. Louis River, for example, the flood waters created by the 10 inches of rain that fell in 24 hours left behind patches of sandy earth covering what was once a grassy field.

To repair the damage, Duluth officials are working with the Department of Natural Resources to restore the streams in a way that is good for the environment and helps prevent future floods, a project that likely will take five to 10 years to complete.

"The banks are very steep, as you can see, eroded, sometimes hundreds of feet high," said Chris Kleist, Duluth's storm water program coordinator. "All that debris moved into the stream channel and was pushed down either into the lower part of the stream channel or the St. Louis River."

Click for before-after views of northeast Minnesota

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The disaster unfolded, moment by moment, on our live blog

Dead trees now line parts of Mission Creek, allowing eroded soil to wash into the stream, jeopardizing aquatic life. In others areas, the volume of water completely changed streams' routes.

Fixing all of Duluth's damaged streams, however, will cost $12.6 million, far more than the $2.4 million provided so far by the DNR and the Board of Water and Soil Resources for the neediest projects.

All 16 of the streams that run through Duluth sustained some kind of damage during last year's flood, said Kleist, who works in the city's engineering department.

Mission Creek
The bank of Mission Creek in Duluth, Minn. is eroding. The stream itself has moved from the far side of the creek bed where it ran before the flood. The 15 other streams that flow through the city were also badly damaged.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

"Streams run through parks or along roads or trails or bridges, and in some cases if the whole thing was washed out we may have had funding from FEMA to repair the road or the trail, but not the bank or the stream," he said.

Kleist said rebuilding banks prevents erosion and will better protect roads and bridges from future storms.

The city could just put up concrete barriers to hold back the eroding stream banks. But Kleist said that option wasn't seriously considered because it's not environmentally sound.

Instead, city officials aim to improve on what was there before.

"As we put in culverts we want to make them larger, sized more appropriately -- allow fish passage through culverts that didn't have it before," Kleist said. "Instead of just stabilizing the banks with hard surfaces, if we can add vegetation and habitat for fish and wildlife that's a great opportunity for us."

Mission Creek
Trees and other debris were washed into Duluth's Mission Creek during last year's flooding. This is just one of the 16 streams damaged that the city wants to repair in an ecological way.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

In the case of Mission Creek, repairing the stream in an environmentally sound way will help support life, said Kirstin Stutzman, a DNR hydrologist.

About a mile upstream, the DNR is stocking the area with brook trout this year and next.

"There [are] pretty highly valued potential trout waters up there: cool water, shaded," Stutzman said. "It's a forested area; a lot of it's up in the city park."

The way the city is rebuilding of the streams, she said, will address a broader set of needs.

"We're meeting the goals of the habitat value for the trout and other aquatic life," Stutzman said. "We're meeting the goals of the sediment and debris moving property for passing through a structure. And we're meeting the goals of the stream using its natural flood plane to the best capacity without having to put any other structures in harms way."