Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to tour the Oak Glen Golf Course in Stillwater for the first time since it completed an ambitious stream restoration project with the Brown’s Creek Watershed District last year. The course, which is located just north of Lake McKusick, worked with the Watershed District and Emmons & Olivier Resources, Inc. (EOR), to restore natural habitat along 1300 feet of Brown’s Creek and to replace two acres of high-maintenance turf alongside the stream with a buffer of native plants. Approximately two-thirds of the $300,000 project cost was covered by a Clean Water Land and Legacy grant, with the Watershed District funding the rest.
When I toured Oak Glen this September, I was immediately struck by how natural the landscape appeared, which was somewhat amazing considering that the streambank buffer was only planted last year. In spite of the never-ending rain this spring and the extended hot, dry weather this summer, the flowers and shrubs along the creek were flourishing. Butterflies were dancing around the buttonbush and the stream corridor was awash in colors of yellow black-eyed susans, purple coneflowers and blue bottle gentian.
As much as the native plants along this stretch of Brown’s Creek provide habitat for birds and pollinating insects, however, their role in protecting trout and other aquatic stream life is equally important. 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. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has classified the stream as impaired for failing to support biological life and the Brown’s Creek Watershed District has been working with the City of Stillwater, local homeowners, and large property owners like the Stillwater Country Club and Oak Glen Golf Course to restore the creek to good health.
Within the 1500 feet of Brown’s Creek that runs through Oak Glen, the stream had gradually become wider and shallower as a result of erosion along the streambank where the shallow roots of the turf grass were unable to hold the soil in place. This created a problem for trout because silt on the bottom of the stream was smothering the insects they eat, as well as any eggs they might lay. In addition, shallower water gets warmer more quickly, especially when there’s no shade from trees or shrubs, and trout can only survive and reproduce in cold water. Consultants from EOR hypothesized that if they planted deep-rooted native plants along the creek, the stream would naturally get deeper over time without them having to manually excavate the channel. In fact, Brown’s Creek Watershed District’s Administrator Karen Kill notes that the creek is already noticeably deeper only one year after the restoration project and that water temperatures are six degrees cooler on the warmest days of the summer.
What do the golfers think about the changes to their course? Wilson Golf Group, which owns and operates the course, has fully embraced the project and even helped to design interpretive signs that will be installed near the creek later this year. For years, the creek was almost a nuisance to people trying to golf, but now because of the restoration project, it is more of a landscape amenity – an interesting course feature. Thanks to deeper water and the addition of a few larger rocks in the stream channel, golfers can now hear the sound of a brook babbling while they play, an experience that many say they enjoy. As for the occasional golf ball that makes its way into Brown’s Creek? EOR Landscape Architect Kevin Biehn likes to think of them as additional rock riffles. “They’re creating pockets for sediment to settle out or insects to hide.” Unless a determined golfer grabs them, he adds. Then it’s back to the game.