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The Dead River: Recovery of a Quality U.P. Trout Stream
November 3, 2005
It all started with a small trickle of water that began to tease a vulnerable point in the earthen dam holding back millions of gallons of water in the Silver Lake Basin, a water storage unit for the Dead River in Marquette County.
Following heavy rains on May 11-12, 2003, and another drenching downpour May 13, the trickle quickly became a torrent the following day as the waters in the basin breached the dam and rushed into the Dead River channel.
From there, the water roared downstream, all the way to Lake Superior more than 25 miles away, destroying most everything in its path.
"The force of the water obliterated the banks of the Upper Dead River, blocked the mouths of the tributaries with sand and debris, and knocked over thousands of trees," said Jessica Mistak, fisheries biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources.
After tearing apart 20 miles of river channel, the wall of water hit the earthen dike at the Tourist Park impoundment in Marquette, washing it out and completely flooding the Presque Isle Power Plant at the mouth of the river.
The only way to fully assess the situation was from the air, so Mistak and fellow Fisheries Biologist George Madison went up in a DNR plane the next morning.
"It was an amazing scene, "Mistak said. "There was little doubt that the fisheries resources, not to mention the riverine habitat, had been completely destroyed."
From the air, the plume of silt-filled water and the remains of trees created a visible mud trail that could be seen arching out from the river mouth into Lake Superior for more than a mile.
"Drastic times call for quick action and within a few days, we were able to convene a team of resource agencies, including DNR, DEQ, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to address the damage," said Madison.
DNR fisheries managers quickly focused on using the principles of natural channel design as the blueprint to conduct recovery efforts.
"The concept is simple, yet we knew accomplishing the task would be challenging because of the massive erosion that had occurred to the river banks," Mistak said. "But it was obvious to the team that the best way to restore the river was to set it back to its true course."
Madison said stream restoration of this magnitude involves all aspects of the ecosystem and habitat, not just the soils and the fisheries.
"You also need to factor in the wildlife and the native plant species that once thrived along the banks of this river, and in order to get a full vision of what needed to be done, we studied several stable streams nearby," he said.
Today, recovery efforts are in full swing.
The Upper Peninsula Power Company, which owns the Silver Lake Basin, chose to rebuild the dam, using newer and more fail-safe methods and the basin is filling again.
Just downstream, tractors, bulldozers, trucks and other heavy equipment are moving more than 91,000 cubic yards of material in order to re-create a 16,000-foot section of the original river channel, floodplain and wetlands.
One of the priorities has been in-stream habitat, which involves using natural materials, such as rock and root wads, to reestablish the riffles, pools and shelter fish and aquatic insects need to flourish.
"Many of these habitat features were constructed 'in the dry' with the intention of redirecting the river to these newly stabilized portions later in the construction process," Mistak said. "It was pretty amazing to walk through a constructed riffle or pool and imagine that, in just a few weeks, the waters of the Dead River would again be flowing where I was standing."
A vital component of a healthy river is the floodplain area beside the stream and the associated wetlands. To address the devastated floodplain, a 100-foot buffer zone on either side of the new channel was planted with native grasses, shrubs and trees.
"This critical vegetation will help filter out the sediments, provide shade for the river and eventually contribute to in-stream habitat," Mistak said. "Recovery efforts also include preserving existing wetlands or constructing new ones where it's feasible to do so."
Although construction of the new section of the Dead River is expected to be finished by the end of November, much more work lies ahead for other areas below the Silver Lake Basin.
Eventually, the physical size of the restored stream channel will be given the proper width, depth and contours that a stream such as the Dead River should have to provide quality habitat for future populations of fish. In time, when the vegetation takes hold, the Upper Dead River once again will have the appearance of a typical, wild Upper Peninsula trout stream.
"In years to come, we will see not only recovery of the river itself," Madison said, "but also for the fish and other wildlife species that rely on it for sustinence and shelter."
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