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Conservation project hopes to curtail erosion, restore Krause Creek near Bigfork

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | October 28, 2021 12:00 AM

The walls of the Krause Creek stream bed tower above Don Garner as he walked the dry channel on his property northwest of Bigfork Monday morning.

When he moved onto the property 24 years ago, the creek was a narrow, shallow flow that meandered across his land. Today, flooding and erosion have turned the channel into a small canyon whose steep walls drop off 15 feet or more in places, but a new project organized by the Flathead Conservation District is hoping to help restore the creek to its original state.

Funded by the state Legislature through the Renewable Resources Grants and Loans Program, the Krause Creek Projects aims to return the stream to a shallower, gentler flow using a series of simple wooden structures and the flow of the river itself to change the shape of the channel. With the use of a group of beaver dam analogues, debris jams and restored vegetation, the project aims to raise the level of the stream bed while reenforcing the creek’s banks to prevent further erosion, creating a wider creek with a inset floodplain and reducing sediment flow from the creek into Echo Lake.

“Krause Creek is unlike a lot of our creeks around here where the water flow is slow and steady year-round,” Flathead Conservation District Resource Conservationist Hailey Graf said. “Krause Creek comes on hard in the spring and then usually is dry by the 4th of July. It’s a creek that is dry for most of the year, but rages during the spring, making it hard for landowners to manage.”

That is especially true for Garner, who could only watch over the years as the flooding each spring caused the creek to cut deeper and deeper across his property, eventually creating a barrier for himself and wildlife.

“One of the surprising impacts to wildlife is that the erosion of the creek is creating a barrier. The creek is so incised in places that even deer and elk cannot easily cross it,” Graf explained. “There are some very steep banks and the creek is 12 to 16 feet deep in some spots. It’s like a small canyon in the middle of the forest.”

HISTORICALLY, KRAUSE Creek did not support a single channel between its upper watershed in the Swan Mountains and its terminus at Echo Lake, but a century of excavation and channelization done in an attempt to reduce flooding and concentrate flow into a primary channel has resulted in significant downcutting and erosion.

With the help of engineers and a fluvial geomorphologist at Whitefish-based River Design Group, a plan was developed to help restore the creek without the use of heavy machinery.

“The methodology that we are using at Krause Creek is a little different from what you see with a lot of restoration projects because we are relying on the force of the water itself to do the work,” Graf said. “There really haven’t been a lot of these types of projects done in Flathead County. We are very curious to see how this methodology will work on our local rivers and streams and Krause Creek is the perfect place to test it. If the structures can hold up to the fast-moving water that goes through Krause Creek and do what we are wanting them to do, then we will be able to use this method in a lot of other places around the area.”

In addition to helping cut the project costs more than in half (the project is projected to cost less than $70,000), the machinery-free project also allows the conservation district to use volunteers to help complete the work.

“One of the beauties of using this low-tech, process-based restoration is that it has a much lower price tag than using heavy equipment to do mechanical restoration. Plus, it’s not a very technical project, so that means the landowners and community members can come and help out,” Graf said. “It’s something we can use as a community involvement and education project. It really helps to get people involved.”

Using a handful of pre-made wooden posts and a collection of materials gathered onsite, the conservation district hopes to be able to use as many as six volunteers per day on the weekdays from Nov. 3-12 to complete the next phase of the project, installing 30 structures to be monitored for effectiveness in the spring.

“One of the great things about this particular process is that we are able to use materials found right here on the property,” Garner said. “That way, we don’t introduce anything new into the environment and it helps thin the forest for fire resistance.”

If the new structures remain in place and perform well, the conservation district hopes to install 20 more in 2022 before the project’s grant funding expires.

Volunteers can join the effort by signing up through the Flathead Conservation District website at www.flatheadcd.org or by calling the district office at 406-752-4220.

Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 406-758-4446 or jweber@dailyinterlake.com.

photo

Landowner Don Garner, right, and Flathead Conservation District Resource Conservationist Hailey Graf stand in the bed of Krause Creek Monday, October 25 discussing project which aims to curtail the yearly erosion of the creek by springtime flooding. (Jeremy Weber/Daily Inter Lake)