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Crews go to great lengths to protect Douglas County stream during road work

It's so small most people could jump over it with a running start, hardly noticeable from the road as it meanders under Wisconsin Highway 105 in Oliver.

Dustin Waldo
RJS Construction Group project manager Dustin Waldo stands near a pump that is diverting a small stream during a culvert replacement project near Wisconsin Highway 105 in Oliver. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

It's so small most people could jump over it with a running start, hardly noticeable from the road as it meanders under Wisconsin Highway 105 in Oliver.

But that doesn't mean the little stream -- officially called "Unnamed Stream" -- that flows into the St. Louis River estuary isn't an important aquatic ecosystem.

"We electroshocked it a couple years ago and it had both suckers and pike. It may not look like much but it is spawning habitat for them," said Amy Cronk of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Those suckers are especially important as a forage fish (food) for the walleyes and pike in the St. Louis River."

That's why the DNR and Wisconsin Department of Transportation are requiring Superior-based RJS Construction Group to go to great lengths to keep the little stream unharmed as workers install a new culvert.

The $458,000 project on the road from western Duluth into southern Superior started June 15, after any spawning was finished. The project should wrap up in August.

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The old, rusted 64-inch-diameter metal culvert, which DNR officials said was too small and constricted the stream, is coming out. A new precast concrete culvert more than 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide on the bottom is going in. The extra capacity will leave more room for deeper water, and allow a little gravel to settle inside the structure, making it a better place for the aquatic critters that fish eat.

"They (fisheries biologists) don't want fish swimming over bare concrete, so having more water inside there, a little more depth, will allow some of the sediment to settle in there," said Dustin Waldo, project manager for RJS.

With more than double the flow capacity, the new culvert also will be able to handle the increase in frequent deluges that climatologists say we're seeing under climate change.

For Waldo and other construction managers across the Northland, taking extra precautions around streams, wetlands and lakes is becoming commonplace. In this case, crews installed a temporary dam upstream of the project to create a pond. Then they are using high capacity pumps to suck up the streamwater and push it more than 200 feet through a huge hose, past the construction project and then back into the stream channel downstream. At the far end the water is run through a filter of native grasses and brush, so it goes back into the stream as clean as or cleaner than it was on the other side.

"It's a small stream. But it turns out to be a pretty complex project when you take it all into account," Waldo said, noting the stream bed is 31 feet below the road grade. Two backhoes and a giant crane were at the site Thursday, working to install more sections of the new culvert.

A temporary one-lane road has been built to handle traffic during the project, which crews will dismantle later. About 2,500 cars per day use the road.

In this part of Wisconsin, red clay is the common soil, and it's everywhere around this stream. Erosion control is critical on this construction project to help keep that infamous red silt out of the St. Louis River and, ultimately, Lake Superior.

Crews even put plastic covers over stockpiles of red clay that will be backfilled to make the new roadway. And any water that percolates up from the ground, or rain runoff, is pumped and filtered as well.

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"The state sets the rules to try to keep erosion out of the stream," Waldo said.

The DNR's Cronk said the project is meeting all the state's erosion and stream protection guidelines and goals, and that such measures are becoming standard procedure.

"You can't have a healthy river unless you have healthy tributaries," she said. "What happens along that kind of little stream has an impact. That's why we have these best management practices for the highway projects."

Culvert construction
A precast concrete arch culvert is being installed in an unnamed stream under Wisconsin Highway 105 near Oliver by RJS Construction Group. The new culvert is double the size of the existing culvert and will provide spawning habitat for northern pike and suckers. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Related Topics: DOUGLAS COUNTYENVIRONMENT
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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