Brown’s Creek, the Trail and the Waterhshed District

            It was recently announced that the State of Minnesota, with the participation of Washington County, was acquiring the right of way for the Minnesota Zephyr to create an extension to the Gateway Trail and bring trail users right into downtown Stillwater via the “Brown’s Creek Trail.” This will fulfill the dreams of many enthusiastic hikers and bikers who will be able to come directly into Stillwater via a trail through the scenic Brown’s Creek gorge. It will also allow users to fully appreciate a view of the Stone Bridge along the Old Military Road, which resides on private property, crossing Brown’s Creek and adjacent to the proposed trail. This is the bridge that so many Stillwater artists have memorialized in photos and paintings found in most of the downtown galleries.

            Unfortunately, it won’t happen in an instant of time. It will require some effort on the part of the Minnesota DNR, Washington County and the Brown’s Creek Watershed District before it is a working reality. Why is the Watershed District involved in the trail’s construction? Brown’s Creek is a state, county, city and local asset and subject to a number of restrictions and guidance documentation. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency deemed the creek an impaired water body in their evaluation and ranking of statewide lakes and rivers. What is the impairment? In much of the upland creek area it is too warm to support the cold water trout fishery, so the district is trying to provide shade and cover. As the stream enters the lower, colder water reaches, where natural ground water comes into play, the water has reduced oxygen. It carries too great a load of sediment as it enters the St. Croix River and too much phosphorous for the delicate balance of water chemistry, which is also degrading the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers.

            Having identified the problems, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District has developed a long term plan to correct these deficiencies over a period of time, almost ten years to be exact. Many of the new rain gardens beginning to dot Stillwater neighborhoods will reduce the phosphorous and the amount of sun-warmed water reaching the creek a little bit at a time. Settling basins and treatment ponds along the roadways will trap sediment and allow some of the runoff phosphorous to be converted into plant growth before reaching the creek. The Watershed District has also identified a number of ravines, gullies and culverts along the length of the Zephyr Tracks (the new Brown’s Creek Trail) that contribute sediment to the creek, cumulatively many tons of sediment annually.

            The conversion of railroad tracks into an environmentally and user friendly trailway offers the Brown’s Creek Watershed District an opportunity to consolidate up to ten years of piecemeal improvements into a one year, coordinated effort that will make a dramatic and significant reduction in the amount of sediment reaching the creek. We plan to work closely with the DNR Trails division to optimize the use of heavier equipment while the tracks are being removed and to fix as many erosion problems as possible. By working with the DNR Trails personnel we can reach our objectives sooner and ultimately at a lower cost, while enhancing the experience of trail users who won’t have to navigate around heavy equipment coming in to make repairs in the future. The Brown’s Creek Watershed District expects to be an active and enthusiastic partner in this project and we’re looking forward to enjoying Brown’s Creek, both the trail and the stream, for years to come.


Guest Writer: Craig Leiser is Board President for the Brown’s Creek Watershed District. He can be reached at or 651.439.4008.