My decision to seek out Hardwood Creek was made impulsively one evening on the drive home from work. How could it be, I wondered, that I had worked in Washington County for eight years, traipsed back country roads from Cottage Grove to Forest Lake, reviewed dozens upon dozens of technical studies and water monitoring reports for local lakes and streams, and yet never seen the infamous creek with my own two eyes?
Classified by Washington County as one of the top ten priority conservation areas in the county, the Rice Lake wetlands and hardwood swamps surrounding the upper portion of Hardwood Creek (east of Hwy 61) form the largest complex of native habitat remaining in the county. Unique plants and animals that have long since disappeared from our area due to farming and development still find home in the groundwater fed wetlands surrounding the creek. There are fernleaf false foxglove, kittentails, creeping juniper, and American ginseng; red-shouldered hawks, blanding’s turtles, eastern hognose snakes, American brook lampreys, milk snakes and Louisiana waterthrush. Despite the natural diversity near the upper portion, however, Hardwood Creek’s health deteriorates as it heads west toward Lake Peltier in Anoka County. Downstream, only a few hearty species of fish and aquatic invertebrates are able to survive due to sedimentation and low dissolved oxygen levels.
I began my search from Hardwood Creek at Paul Hugo Farms Wildlife Management Area. The creek, also known as Judicial Ditch #2, originates south of Rice Lake, before flowing through the WMA and then north across farmland in Hugo and Forest Lake. My two-year old chattered happily at my side as we ambled down the access road, which passed through restored prairie, glowing red in the late day sun, before entering a beautiful stand of woods. I felt a bit uneasy as Charlie collected a rainbow assortment of shotgun shells along the way, but was nonetheless amazed by the patchwork quilt of native woodland flowers, ferns and shrubs we found. The road finally ended in a massive cattail swamp where Rice Lake used to be. Disagreement over which government entity is to blame for the lake’s low water levels is just one of many controversies surrounding Hardwood Creek.
After hiking back to the car, Charlie and I drove north along dusty country roads, chasing the winding path of Hardwood Creek. I finally found the stream where it passed through a culvert under the road, pulled over, and snapped a few photos in the setting sun.
The upper two-thirds of Hardwood Creek have been maintained as a ditch since 1908. Along the lower creek (west of Hwy 61), there are many places where the stream banks are eroding and dirt has filled in gravel beds needed by fish for spawning. In 2002, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency added Hardwood Creek to the official list of impaired waters due to low dissolved oxygen levels throughout the length of the creek and limited fish diversity in the lower portion.
Two years ago, the Rice Creek Watershed District used federal grant funding to stabilize eroding stream banks, restore the original meandering path of Hardwood Creek along a 1800 foot path in Anoka County that was straightened when Interstate 35E was built, and connect 500 feet of the creek to a floodplain area. Additional voluntary efforts by local landowners, such as building fences to keep livestock out of the creek and establishing buffers of native plants or perennial crops, at least 50-100 feet wide, along the edge of the stream, would help to nurse Hardwood Creek back to good health as well.