Par for the Course?

There are certain things one expects from a golf course. Rolling hills and neatly trimmed grass with a smattering of sand traps and man-made ponds are the norm. One sees people wearing polo shirts and crisp khaki shorts, and white covered golf carts zipping along on the pathways. A clubhouse is standard, and so too are the nicer-than-average cars parked outside of the building. Would you expect, though, to find a coldwater fishery with naturally reproducing trout and a diverse assemblage of macroinvertebrates?

Browns Creek reconstruction in Oak Glen before planting. Photo from BCWD.

This spring, the Oak Glen Golf Course in Stillwater is wrapping up a $300,000 stream improvement project that will restore natural habitat along 1300 feet of Brown’s Creek and convert two acres of land adjacent to the stream from turf grass into a buffer of native plants. The project will help to filter out pollutants that might otherwise enter the stream, and will also lower water temperatures, which will benefit trout in the stream. The project was funded in part by a $210,000 grant from the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment, with the Brown’s Creek Watershed District providing the remainder of the funding. A similar project, completed at Stillwater Country Club in 2010, has also improved habitat in the area and now keeps 46.3 tons of sediment per year out of the stream.

Brown’s Creek is a designated trout stream that originates from groundwater fed wetlands in north-central Washington County and enters into the St. Croix River just north of Stillwater near Wolf Marine. In the past, the stream supported a healthy population of trout, but in recent years, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has found that only stocked fish are turning up in surveys. In other words, the trout are no longer able to reproduce in Brown’s Creek. In addition, studies conducted by the Brown’s Creek Watershed District have shown that many of the aquatic insects (macroinvertebrates) that the trout eat can no longer survive in the stream because the water is too warm. As a result, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has classified the stream as impaired for failing to support biological life.

To address this problem, the Brown’s Creek Watershed District has approached several landowners along the stream in recent years to complete projects that will restore habitat and improve water quality. Designed by local firm Emmons & Olivier Resources, the Oak Glen Golf Course project will reduce stream temperatures by shading and narrowing the creek. A constructed floodplain bench will define the native plant buffer along the stream, while constructed riffles in the stream will protect the project infrastructure and provide habitat for the trout. According to Brown’s Creek Watershed Administrator Karen Kill, these changes should lower the maximum daily temperature of the stream by 6°, which will be enough to transform the stream from a fatal environment into a healthy home for trout.

For golfers at Oak Glen, as well as Stillwater area residents and visitors, the changes along Brown’s Creek will be highly visible. The area of restoration runs from just north of McKusick Road to the north edge of the golf course along the railroad tracks. It will be most noticeable from holes 10, 15, 16 and 17. In addition to improving conditions for trout and the insects that sustain them, the stream planting and buffer zone will also provide habitat for birds, as well as dragonflies, butterflies and other beneficial insects. It will provide a unique course aesthetic, with enhanced signature holes, and will also reduce irrigation needs.

Earthwork and major construction for the Oak Glen project was completed last year, and even though the landscaping and planting in still in progress, there are signs that trout in the stream are already reaping the benefits. Golf course staff have seen trout swimming by and people downstream have been finding the fish, alive and healthy, as well. In the coming years, the DNR and Watershed District will continue to monitor Brown’s Creek to determine if macroinvertebrates and trout return to healthy populations. Meanwhile, the restored stream corridor and future signage will serve as an important educational tool for golfers and the general public.

Will natural habitat and high-quality streams become par for the course at golf courses in Minnesota? If more follow in the footsteps of Oak Glen and the Stillwater Country Club, happy trout and singing birds might soon be as common a sight as ladies in pink golf shirts and men wearing visors.