There aren’t many cities that can claim 50 streams running through their boundaries, like Duluth can, let alone a dozen or more clear and cool enough to hold native, wild trout.
From Mission Creek on the west to the Lester River on the east, the city is crossed by streams that start high over the hill and tumble down to the St. Louis River or Lake Superior.
Jeff Jasperson of Duluth likes to snorkel in these shallow, cool streams and look behind old logs in the water. He’s finding not only small brook trout babies but also some bigger, breeding stock fish, in places that don’t necessarily look like the trout streams we see in fly-fishing magazines or movies.
“I don't think many people in Duluth realize how many of these local streams still have wild trout in them,’’ said Jasperson, a biologist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in Duluth. “It’s not just the bigger rivers. We’re finding trout in tiny, cold-water tributaries you could jump across in one step.”
When Jasperson isn’t snorkeling for fun or monitoring streams as part of his day job, he likes catching trout with his kids. He’s even captured some great underwater video of urban trout on his Go-Pro.
“The fact we can walk from our house in Duluth and catch a few trout and cook them up for dinner, the kids think that’s so cool. So do I,’’ he said.
But most of Duluth’s urban trout streams are impaired, in some sort of trouble caused by the trappings of city life: Too much sediment from runoff, salt from winter road clearing and E. coli bacteria contamination from people and animals.
All that concrete and blacktop in town means water runs off, doesn’t soak in, and is often too warm and too dirty, or turbid, to meet trout standards. Some Duluth streams are already too warm at times for trout to live. Worse, most are forecast by mid-century — just 30 years from now — to warm to levels that are fatal to trout, thanks to a warming climate.
That’s why the PCA has developed a report on the status of those streams and released a plan on how to make 11 of them more hospitable to fish. The 11 are the streams with enough long-term data available to show what impairments are an issue.
The name is a mouthful — the Duluth Urban Streams Total Maximum Daily Load — part of the sometimes-obtuse federal mandate to apply the Clean Water Act to ground-level waterways. The effort establishes the amount of each pollutant, the load, that each stream can accept and still meet water quality standards. The process provides a snapshot of where streams are today and lays out a road map on how to improve water quality over the next 10-30 years. But it’s going to take more than a plan to get there. Local governments, watershed districts and especially residents will have to spend time, money and effort.
“It’s not saying that by 2030 or even 2050 everything is going to be fine. But it’s identifying the issues and offering a plan on how to improve,’’ said Karen Evens, who is leading the effort for the PCA. “And it gives us a way to measure the progress along the way.”
There are no trout police to enforce the effort.
"It’s not prescriptive. We can’t order the community to do these things,’’ Evens noted. “It has to be collaborative.”
Fixes included more and better street sweeping by cities to keep polluted sediment from flushing into the streams with each rain; better stormwater storage and management; cleaning sediment traps in storm sewers; protecting small, cold-water tributaries that keep the bigger streams cold and oxygenated enough for trout; limiting or at least better planning for development near streams; and preserving vegetation along the waterways.
E.coli bacteria in streams washes in not just from humans, but also pets and wild animals. On the human side, fixing leaking sewer pipes and replacing failing septic systems are key. Adding more and better restrooms in city parks would help. Reducing pet waste remains a huge issue. There may be areas where nuisance wild animal populations — raccoons, deer, beaver, etc. need to be reduced or where birds like geese and ducks need to be encouraged to stay away.
While many people perceive brook trout to be a hyper-sensitive species that needs pristine waters to survive, Jasperson says Duluth brook trout have adapted over the last century of intense development, with the strongest fish passing on their genes.
“The surviving fish know where the cold water springs and tributaries are; I’ve seen fish really packed around those. They also know where to go in August, or in a drought year like right now, to hang out when the flows are really low,’’ he said.
That's how Miller Creek can flow right through the uber-developed Miller Hill Mall district and still have a viable population of wild brook trout. But fluctuations in the creek's population — from as high as 448 trout per 1,000 feet in 1993 to just 34 in 2005 — show problems remain: Salt, sediment, a lack of cold-water hiding places and runoff from the massive parking lots and ribbons of road in the area.
“When people realize that these aren’t just drainage ditches running through town. When you show them they are a functioning, living systems with real fish — maybe not functioning as well as they could be — most people are willing to help,’’ Jasperson said. “But a lot of people don’t know. I’ve talked to landowners who didn’t even know they had a cold-water stream on their land, let alone a population of wild brook trout. Some of them are just floored when I tell them.”
Over 30 years, to do all the suggested work in the PCA plan could cost the community between $100 and $130 million to save its trout streams, Evens said. But it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.
“We want to target efforts to where they are going to have the most bang for the buck,’’ she said. “That’s why we want to incorporate stream (protections) into projects that are already going to happen.”
That means UMD plans ahead to improve campus stormwater control efforts as part of its new dormitory construction project. City officials incorporate stream protection efforts as they rebuild city streets and sewers. Slowing and storing warm, dirty water on developed sites is a big step toward cleaner streams. So is protecting wetlands and springs high on Duluth’s hill, the sources of each stream, using conservation easements and tougher construction rules.
Deserae Hendrickson, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Duluth area fisheries supervisor, said reclaiming more natural stream channels also is key for trout, and restoration projects that followed the massive 2012 flood have done wonders. Chester Creek, for example, has seen a transformation from a dammed, channeled stream slowed by a pond to a more natural, free-flowing waterway thanks to a project by the South St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District. The effort also has helped the stream stay within its natural floodplain during major flood events.
The flood itself has some surprising benefits. When a man-made debris barrier blew out of Mission Creek in western Duluth during the flood, it opened up the upper stream for fish. Now, steelhead trout from Lake Superior are spawning far upstream for the first time in half a century, Hendrickson said.
“The flood did a lot of damage, certainly. But where it blew out (small culverts and small bridges) it allowed us to get larger passages replaced in those areas. So we saw a lot of re-connectivity there, opening up new areas for trout,’’ she said.
In a few western Duluth streams, the DNR found cool water but no wild trout remaining. So they stocked the creeks and now the trout are reproducing on their own.
But problem areas remain. Tischer Creek just below Hartley Nature Area now is a warm water dead zone for trout, Hendrickson noted, in large part because the creek is dammed to create Hartley Pond. Removing the dam would help trout but destroy the pond, a favorite spot for local residents. There are possible solutions, such as separating the creek from the pond so the stream water can flow faster.
“We have stretches of streams that are impaired and need attention," Hendrickson said. “But we also have a lot of stream runs that, despite what we’ve done to them over the years, somehow hang on and support trout.”
The PCA’s Evens agreed.
“These trout, even if you don’t fish for them, are part of Duluth’s identity, part of the quality of life,’’ she said. “Having trout streams in our city is part of why people want to live here.”