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NFC: Damn them dams....

Mother Nature Didn't Get It Right The First Time
Konrad Schmidt - St. Paul, MN
In southwestern Minnesota, there is a large chunk of real estate
resembling Montana's Big Sky Country on a smaller scale. Here the row
crops give way to range land, and with a little imagination, cattle
grazing on the distant hills are buffalo roaming the once wild and
fenceless Great Plains. The French explorers called this area Coteau des
Prairies (highland of the prairies) which is 500 to 800 feet higher than
the "flatlands" to the east. The Coteau is also the break between the
Missouri and Mississippi River basins in Minnesota and streams draining
the area often have gradients of almost 50 feet per mile. One such
stream, Mound Creek, was one of the most unique and beautiful natural
resources left in that part of the state. In Red Rock Falls County Park,
a tributary to Mound Creek cascades over a 20 foot falls and cuts a deep
gorge through the pink Sioux quartzite. Downstream of the gorge, the
water ran crystal clear through bedrock pools and riffles. (See Map and

I stumbled on to this out of the way place during a collecting trip to
the Missouri River Basin. I draped my legs over the lip of the gorge,
soaked it all in, and thought of Dorothy's famous words in The Wizard of
Oz, "Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." Ignorance is
bliss and I naively believed this stream would never change and always be
protected. However, I learned (again) reality can be a bitter pill to

Late in 1990, I heard a flood control project was scheduled for Mound
Creek. Ironically, the Army Corps of Engineers had long ago abandoned
this site and 70 others once proposed for the Minnesota River basin. I
was familiar enough with the Corps' past that these projects really had
to be lousy and couldn't be justified. Otherwise, I am certain all would
have been built. However, there now was a grass roots backing of several
counties which insisted they needed dams on these streams to reduce flood
damage. This project on Mound Creek included the construction of a 28
acre reservoir downstream of Red Rock Falls. When completed, this dam
will be a total fish barrier and the impoundment will inundate riffles
upstream to the park's boundary. There was nothing I could do to stop
this project, but I could survey the entire Mound Creek watershed and
establish a fish species list for both above and below the dam. Although
it was actually an obituary, I hoped this information would some day be
used to verify the likely loss of many stream fishes above the dam, and
just perhaps, limit the number of future flood control projects proposed
for southwestern Minnesota.

I started the fish surveys in May of 1991 which was just in time because
construction of the dam and reservoir were well underway. I wanted a
sample station immediately below the dam, but had to first get permission
from the landowner who "volunteered" volumes of information and personal
opinion about the project. He was very much for flood control and also
the recreational opportunities the reservoir would bring. In his next
breath, he stated with great pride in being a member of The Nature
Conservancy and was thrilled the endangered Prairie Bush Clover had been
found at several locations in the area. He followed me down to the stream
and snapped several pictures for an album he was keeping on the project.
He was also very interested in the fish I found on his land and I had to
spell every one out for him. Since I had his attention, I tried to
briefly "evangelize" to him about the habitat needs of stream fishes and
that most would probably disappear forever above the reservoir, but the
light bulb just wouldn't go on. I made two more trips that year to survey
the seasonal changes in species presence and abundance and my "real job"
with the Department of Natural Resources also sent me out again for the
Minnesota River Assessment Project (MRAP) to survey additional sites near
Red Rock Falls. On the last survey in 1992, we sampled a site just
downstream of the confluence of Mound Creek and the tributary which flows
through the park. As expected, the water was like glass and roared
through boulder pools and riffles. As we were working up our catch, a
farmer pulled up in his truck and came down to the stream. He owned the
parcel we were on and was just curious about what we had found. I'm
always happy to have an audience so I gladly showed him the catch. He was
really amazed that so many types of fish were found in this little
stream. His eyes had a look of awe and wonder I usually only see in
children. I told him this stream, for its small size, had one of the most
diverse fish communities in the entire Minnesota River basin. Beaming
with interest, he asked why that was and I attempted to explain the
higher gradient of the Coteau's streams generally create more types of
habitats and scours silt from pools and riffles which therefore can
support more kinds of fish. I pointed upstream and added there are very
few streams left like this any where in the entire basin. Then I drove
home my point with, "You know, you really have something very special
here." I could tell he was puzzled by this comment and responded with the
greatest sincerity, "I do?" A shocked expression swept over my face and
he read it immediately. He quickly added, "I have driven over that bridge
almost everyday for the last 50 years and it all looks the same as any
other stream to me." It took a minute to fully grasp what he had said and
then realized I was now viewing this same scene through his eyes, in his
world, and he was right.

On the way home, I made one final stop at Red Rock Falls. From a crest of
a hill which divides the tributary and Mound Creek, I found two very
different and disturbing panoramic views. In one direction, the falls and
gorge were as beautiful as my first visit, but turning around, I could
see a horrible wound had been ripped into Mound Creek. Trees, riparian,
and streambed had been torn up and cleared away for a sediment trap dam.
And just when I thought the worst was over and the atrocities had ceased.
With regrets, I left, but the treasured memory of the Emerald City will
remain with me forever.

I will never feel my efforts were wasted. At the very least, we now have
a picture of what the pre-impoundment fish community was like in the
Mound Creek watershed. I found 25 fishes and 18 of those were above the
dam (Table 1). The MRAP surveys also confirmed my assumptions about the
Red Rock Falls area. The Index of Biotic Integrity analyzes the
composition of fish communities to measure environmental quality in
streams. Sample stations are scored from 0 (very poor) to 60 (pristine).
The two sites near the park scored 48 and 55 which were some of the
highest in the entire Minnesota River basin.

Table 1. Mound Creek watershed 1991 - 1992 fish survey results and
species presence (+) above (A) and below (B) the dam. Family 
Scientific Name Common Name Total % A B 
Campostoma anomalum Central Stoneroller 229 14.4 + + 
Cyprinella spilopterus Spotfin Shiner 6 0.4  + 
Cyprinus carpio Common Carp 14 0.9  + 
Hybognathus hankinsoni Brassy Minnow 35 2.2 + + 
Luxilus cornutus Common Shiner 347 21.8 + + 
Nocomis biguttatus Hornyhead Chub 97 6.1 + + 
Notropis dorsalis Bigmouth Shiner 32 2.0 + + 
Notropis stramineus Sand Shiner 8 0.5  + 
Pimephales notatus Bluntnose Minnow 83 5.2 + + 
Pimephales promelas Fathead Minnow 93 5.8 + + 
Rhinichthys atratulus Blacknose Dace 213 13.4 + + 
Semotilus atromaculatus Creek Chub 116 7.3 + + 
Catostomus commersoni White Sucker 49 3.1 + + 
Ameiurus melas Black Bullhead 7 0.4 + 
Ameiurus natalis Yellow Bullhead 1 0.1  + 
Noturus flavus Stonecat 1 0.1  + 
Noturus gyrinus Tadpole Madtom 1 0.1  + 
Culaea inconstans Brook Stickleback 11 0.7 + + 
Lepomis cyanellus Green Sunfish 34 2.1 + + 
Lepomis humilis Orangespotted Sunfish 2 0.1 + + 
Lepomis macrochirus Bluegill 5 0.3  + 
Etheostoma exile Iowa Darter 2 0.1 + 
Etheostoma flabellare Fantail Darter 99 6.2 + + 
Etheostoma nigrum Johnny Darter 91 5.7 + + 
Percina maculata Blackside Darter 13 0.8 + + 
 Total: 1589 100.0 

Bailey, P.A., J.W. Enblom, S.R. Hanson, P.A. Renard, and K. Schmidt.
1993. A fish community analysis of the Minnesota River Basin. Minnesota
Department of Natural Resources. 210 pp.

Schmidt. K.P. 1992. Mound Creek watershed 1991 fish survey results.
unpublished. 24 pp.

Waters, T.F. 1977. The streams and rivers of Minnesota. University of
Minnesota Press. 373 pp.

Robert Rice
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