2013-08-15 / Outdoors

New watershed group works on Esky river

Graduate student Joe Wagner, above, has spent the last two summers studying the upper reaches of the Escanaba River. 
Courtesy photo Graduate student Joe Wagner, above, has spent the last two summers studying the upper reaches of the Escanaba River. Courtesy photo ESCANABA – The Escanaba River Watershed Project, one of the newer state watershed protection groups, began when the Department of Natural Resources partnered with the Fred Waara Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Escanaba River Association. Now in its third year, the Escanaba River Watershed Project – which has since attracted a handful of additional partners – is taking on its first habitat-improvement enterprise: fixing a perched culvert that cuts off close to 20 miles of what could be productive brook trout spawning water in a major tributary.

The Escanaba Watershed Project “was initiated three years ago after a conversation our Trout Unlimited chapter had with some of our friends and cohorts in the Escanaba River Association,” said Jerry Maynard, vice-president and conservation chair of the Fred Waara chapter of TU. “They expressed interest in expanding some of their work to the upper Escanaba. We decided to look at the West Branch of the Escanaba River in Marquette and Dickinson counties and take a long-range, watershed-wide approach to the river, rather than look at specific one-off projects.”

The project began collecting information on natural reproduction of brook trout and developed a five-year plan of action, with the first two years dedicated to fact finding. It hired Northern Michigan University graduate student Joe Wagner to study the area, collect habitat and water-quality data, quantify the flow, and tag and follow some fish to determine how the trout travel in the system. They immediately identified the perched culvert on Schwartz Creek – one of the headwaters of the West Branch – as a problem.

Project leaders recently met with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Dickinson County Conservation District and the Dickinson County Road Commission to see what it would take to fix the problem.

“It can be replaced several ways,” said Bob Jensen, president and education chair of the Waara Chapter. “It could be anything from a grandiose concrete culvert to a simple metal span – or something in between. We’re collecting data on the flood plain, which will determine the project’s cost to a great degree.”

The Escanaba River Watershed Project has submitted a grant application to the Environmental Protection Agency in hopes of funding the replacement for the 5-foot-diameter, 25-foot-long, perched culvert. The replacement could cost in excess of $100,000, Jensen said.

“If we could keep it to a minor project – less than 20 feet and no change in roadway elevation – it can minimize red tape,” Jensen said. “DEQ is very supportive. If the road commission can get a design and do the work, we can hopefully get this done this year.”

Meanwhile, the project has attracted additional partners: the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited, Dickinson County Sportsmen’s Club, Northern Michigan University’s fisheries program, the Trout and Salmon Foundation, and a hunting and fishing club that wishes to remain anonymous.

Maynard said the group focused on the West Branch because the Middle Branch has a dam on it and the East Branch flows through a pond that is part of one of the iron-mine operations, so it has elevated heavy metal levels in the water.

Wagner, the graduate student who spent the last two summers studying the situation, said he suspects the perched culvert is causing problems with water temperatures downstream in Schwartz Creek.

Replacing the perched culvert on Schwartz Creek is just the first of what the group hopes will be numerous projects in the Escanaba River watershed.

For more information on the Fred Waara Chapter or other TU activities, visit www.michigantu.org.

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