MARQUETTE -The Escanaba River Watershed Project, one of the newer state watershed protection groups, began when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources partnered with the Fred Waara Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) 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.
"Some of them support us with cash, some of them with volunteer time," said Maynard, a retired environmental attorney who lives near Marquette.
DNR fisheries biologist Darren Kramer, who's working with the group, says the bottom line is to protect and improve the resources in the whole watershed, improve fishing for the general public and build a foundation to explore other opportunities on streams in the Upper Peninsula.
The West Branch of the Escanaba is "groundwater-fed, cold and with suitable substrate for natural reproduction," Kramer said. "The clubs have done the bulk of the work here. We've been in an advisory role. They've really taken the bull by the horns and invested in this."
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.
"The West Branch is the only main branch that is unimpeded and unimpacted," Maynard said. "It also flows primarily through state forest land, so there's not an issue of gaining access to it to do the work."
Larry Wanic, president of the Escanaba River Association and a retired school administrator, says the decision to get involved in this project was a no-brainer.
"Our group got active in the mid-1980s, and our main mission was the area below Boney Falls Dam," he said. "But in the last few years we've gotten active on working upstream as well. We said, 'Why not join a partnership with Trout Unlimited?' A number of our guys are members of the Fred Waara Chapter, and we want to make that fishery better as well. It will spread people out so we don't have 20 guys fishing in a half-mile of stream."
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.
"We found the upstream portions of the river have good reproduction," Wagner said. "Last summer was an exceptionally warm summer, and when I sampled downstream, there were very few fish, either juveniles or adults. This summer there are a lot of fish down there, which shows it can support good brook trout populations. I guess that five- or six-degree rise in water temperature downstream is probably caused by that culvert.
"There's a lot of beaver activity upstream from that culvert and that's probably exacerbating the problem too."
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.
"We'll just keep working on it," Maynard said. "Habitat improvement, stream crossings and erosion control are our big three."
For more information on the Fred Waara Chapter or other TU activities, visit www.michigantu.org.