Krause Creek was not always constrained by a single defined stream bed.
Relics of shallow channels and dried divots represent the diversity the once-braided stream possessed and now serve as a blueprint for conservationists engineering the stream’s natural potential. To realize that potential, volunteers have been dirtying their hands for the past two weeks in an effort to help restore the waterway to its original, ecologically balanced course.
When early summer snow melts, the perennial creek will once again flow down from its watershed in the Swan Mountains and empty into Echo Lake, northwest of Bigfork. For now, the creek bed is dry, allowing volunteers to manipulate its natural characteristics and learn about its history.
With its single channel limiting dispersal, however, the stream now floods every year and, according to local property owners Doug and Mary Garner, has been for nearly a quarter-century.
The Garners have lived beside the stream since 1997, when the Flathead Valley experienced its wettest year in recorded history as the 100-year floods pushed the Swan and Stillwater rivers well beyond their banks.
“There was water all over the place during that spring, but we could handle that,” Don said of Krause Creek’s former channel morphology.
Gradually, a century’s worth of channelization accelerated the erosion along the creek, widening and deepening the creekbed. Now, because of its faster moving flow, Krause Creek is deeper than most people are tall.
The Flathead Conservation District (FCD) first identified the stream as “creek of concern” in 2015 with the help of the Garners as part of the Landowner Assistance Conservation Grant Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners for conservation projects in Flathead County.
Now the long-awaited effort to repair Krause Creek is being put into action.
The Krause Creek Restoration Project aims to form more sinuous activity throughout the stream, and with legislative funding from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s (DNRC) Renewable Resource Grant and Loan program, an estimated $70,000 covers initial construction, future monitoring and a second phase of construction next fall.
The project uses a Low-Tech Process Based Restoration (LTPBR) method that weaves simple and low-cost structural additions to riverscapes to mimic natural functions.
FCD also contracted engineers from the Whitefish-based River Design Group (RDG). After consulting the Garners, fluvial geomorphologists Ryan Richardson and Dakota Whitman and principal engineer Matt Daniels proposed Beaver Dam Analogs (BDA) and Post-Assisted Log Structures (PALS) to mimic and promote the natural accumulation of woody debris, and the natural dispersal of water.
“Don and I did a walkthrough of his property and from that we got an idea of the objectives,” Richardson said. “When designing the scheme, our main objective was to create an inset floodplain to encourage a riparian forest corridor on this property.”
The process is cost effective, only requiring handheld equipment and volunteers to get the job done. It also relies on nature to do the heavy lifting; over time, water will ultimately change the shape of the channel.
Simulating a natural beaver dam, BDAs modify the stream’s trajectory, or flow, and enhance the riparian habitat. The dam-like structures are tightly woven with locally sourced materials such as pine branches and mud. Soil, too, is expected to fill up the structure, forming a point bar, or an inside bend, in the stream, and will make accompanying willow plants fertile.
In addition to promoting bioaccumulation, PALS direct the force of the water at an angle to the bank; when water rounds the structures’ corners it is shunted into a specific bank causing more erosion, but with specified purpose.
“PALS will guide the force of the water to bounce back and forth, like a waterslide, and create those curves that are much more natural and what we would expect in a natural system,” FCD Resource Conservationist Hailey Graf said.
Graf says human activity gradually dislodged the stream into a single channel, concentrating the stream’s force and forcing erosion.
“Way back in the homestead days, everybody used to think you had to ‘straighten your stream,’” Graf said.
Erosion causes more sediment to be transported downstream into Echo Lake, threatening water quality and aquatic habitat. The creek’s banks wearing away also dewaters adjacent and upland forests and creates a barrier to traversing wildlife. Before paved roads and homes occupied the foothills of the Swan Mountains, Krause Creek likely did not connect all the way to Echo Lake.
“This project will take years to get the final results that we want, maybe even decades,” Graf said. “But the upside is we can do a lot of community involvement, education and outreach and it doesn’t cost as much.”
When the snowpack melts in spring, the group of conservationists will see the fruits of their labor.
“As a team, we’ve had to embrace the uncertainty,” Richardson said. “That’s what you have to do for a project like this, you have to embrace some level of uncertainty.”
For Don Garner, the uncertainty of using a less invasive restoration method is worth a shot. According to Don, using big machinery to dig out the bank would involve 400 dump truck loads of removed dirt.
The Garners’ property has a conservation easement and is a working tree farm. Sourcing branches and logs from the surrounding area will help thin the forest and stave off wildfire. The conservation group also harvested the willows from another nearby landowner, and if they survive they will initiate the regrowth of familiar riparian habitat.
“This approach has highlighted that when you have the time to wait, we can use less expensive technology that also is less invasive,” Don Garner said. “We have the time to let nature help us do the work, but we need Mother Nature to gives us a hand.”
For now, the group will wait for the spring runoff to test the analogs and log structures, and for Richardson the wait will be worth the lessons learned.
“This project is delayed gratification because we’re doing all the work now and we have to wait for the runoff to do the rest,” he said. “We won’t see the results until that happens, but I believe some great objectives will be accomplished.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.