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Nature gets a helping hand to restore habitat along the Vermillion

Volunteers walk to a remeandered stretch of the Vermillion River Saturday with plans to move fish from the old channel to the new. The project, which involves using an electrical charge to stun the fish, had to be delayed because of rain.

A stretch of the Vermillion River in Empire Township is returning to its natural shape with a little help from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR is near the end of a project to add back a series of curves and pools that were cut out of the river more than 70 years ago by farmers looking to maximize their field space.

The straight channels were good for farmers, but they were bad for wildlife, in particular the trout that have turned other parts of the river into popular fishing destinations. That is important in a part of the river located in a DNR wildlife management area.

"This parcel of land was purchased as a place for people to go hunting and fishing," said Brian Nerbonne, DNR trout stream habitat specialist. "Right now, it was not meeting that. The fishing was fairly mediocre on this parcel."

Left alone, the river would eventually return to its natural flow, but that could take years, and it would involve washing a lot of eroded sediment downstream.

Getting the project done with human assistance was its own kind of slow going. It took more than a year to get the necessary permits, and the DNR had to find a grant to pay for the work.

Trout Unlimited contributed $150,000 of Legacy Outdoor Heritage funding.

Nerbonne used another stretch of river a little bit downtstream as the model for the work. The radius of the curves, the spacing between the deeper pools and other aspects of the downstream section are all built into the DNR project.

"We're trying to mimic what the stream is creating for habitat for itself," Nerbonne said.

The new, curvy section of the river is more than 4,500 feet long. It replaces a stretch of river about 3,800 feet long.

With the help of Friends of the Mississippi River the DNR planted 125 trees along the banks of the new channel. Those trees will provide shade to keep the water cool. Trout need cool, clean water to live.

Now, the DNR just needs to get the fish into their new home. The DNR and Friends of the Mississippi River had planned to take care of that Saturday, using electric charges to stun the fish so they could be transported to the new channel. But rainy weather forced the cancellation of that event.

High water levels have made other parts of the project difficult this spring, but Nerbonne said he's happy with the way the work has turned out.

"It seems like it's looking real good and it's got some good habitat," Nerbonne said. "We've already got some good tests of the flow, and it looks like it's going to hold up."

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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