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Grand Marais Channel Restoration

Grand Marais Channel Restoration
Grand Marais Channel Restoration

Location:  Northwestern Polk County
Client:  Red Lake Watershed District


Having the chance to restore six miles of river is an exciting opportunity. Talk of such a project with the Red Lake Watershed District goes back to 1988. However, the challenge began long before that in the name of erosion reduction and flood control. The Grand Marais Creek outlet had steadily eroded since the early 1900s, when a drainage system petition was approved to divert the Grand Marais Channel to an outlet ditch—or “Cutoff Ditch”— ultimately eroding itself into a deep and unmanageable gully over the years.

This resulted in a complete loss of the lower six miles of Grand Marais Creek, including the connectivity from the Red River to the upper 20-mile reach. The drainage ditch was also responsible for dumping an average of 700 tons of sediment annually to the Red River. The original Grand Marais Creek outlet reach was filled with sediment and farmed during dry years. As a result, the hydrology, riparian and aquatic habitat, sustainable fish passage, local drainage capabilities, and outlet channel stability was lost. Erosion also created significant land loss throughout the area.

After years of talk, the project finally became a reality in 2007, when the Red Lake Watershed District secured project funding assistance from multiple interests including a grant for $2.3 million in Legacy funding for the massive restoration effort. 

The Project

To reverse 100 years of erosion damage, this project restored the physical and hydrologic characteristics of this six-mile reach of original natural channel. A diversion structure redirected flows from the drainage ditch and restored them to the natural channel. The restored hydrology sustains aquatic habitat and nearly 400 acres of wetland and prairie native vegetation habitat along the Grand Marais Creek corridor. The project targeted restoring habitat to a variety of spawning and juvenile fish species and waterfowl, as well as restoring a permanent and seasonal riparian ecosystem for aquatic and terrestrial plant and upland animal species. Healthy channel connectivity now exists between the Red River and upstream riverine and wetland habitats within the Grand Marais Creek subwatershed. 

This project provided a unique opportunity for the local landowners, state and local governments to come together and develop a solution to a long-standing land management and environmental problem collaboratively.  Because of the significant size of the project (6 miles of channel restoration), and the effects to a significantly large watershed (excess of 300 square miles), a tremendously diverse group of stakeholders and interests had to be managed throughout the project.  The District used the project team approach to engage these interests in developing the project features and to create solutions along the way. This project serves as a model in the Red River Valley on how to manage and construct large river restoration project segments that maintain the social, economic, and natural resource values for the local community. 

All project construction, including the final diversion dam was completed in the summer of 2015. The new project has restored six miles of natural stream channel habitat, restoring connectivity between more than 20 miles of stream habitat and the Red River of the North. This will provide seasonal fish spawning and nursery habitat, which will increase the resiliency of the river’s ecosystem. Restoring hydrologic and hydraulic conditions to the Grand Marais Creek required the restoration of nearly 400 acres of marginal agricultural land to a functional native vegetation habitat. This involves a mix of prairie floodplain, riparian wetlands, and natural channel within Minnesota’s prairie eco region.

With the restoration complete, the area now enjoys restored wildlife, full flow diversion to the new channel, and lush river landscape in a historic river valley. Like the other projects in the Red River valley that have restored connectivity to historic river reaches and shown incredible responses within the fishery, the expectations for this spring are high for Grand Marais Creek.

Client Benefits

  • Preliminary Engineer’s Report assists the watershed board and Project 60 work team in determining project feasibility, primarily based on preliminary project cost opinions and achievement of project goals.
  • Preliminary understanding of project features and function was developed to identify benefits and disadvantages of the project.
  • Constructed channel will provide restored wildlife, full flow diversion to the new channel, and lush river landscape in a historic river valley.

Award-Winning Design

ACEC/MN recognized this project with the 2017 Engineering Excellence Honor Award for its exceptional degree of innovation, complexity, achievement, and value.