Stream's revival inspires hope that man's damage can be undone

Trout anglers in Minneapolis-St. Paul are lucky to have so many cold-flowing streams nearby. Two favorites within a short distance are the Kinnickinnic, which courses through River Falls, Wis., and the Rush, which divides pretty Wisconsin countryside only a short distance farther east.

An alternative that doesn't get nearly as much trout-fishing pressure is the Eau Galle River, a storied piece of water that is the lifeblood of the pretty village of Spring Valley, Wis.

The history of the Eau Galle (pronounced O Gallee) and the land it drains is one of logging, fortunes won and lost, skirmishes between the Objibwe and the Sioux, and, particularly, of flooding.

So catastrophically and so predictably did the Eau Galle flood in spring that the federal government, passing the Flood Control Act of 1958, finally acted to save Spring Valley the pain of the river overflowing its banks.

The rolled earth dam built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers on Spring Valley's northern edge between 1965 and 1968 controls runoff from an approximately 60-square-mile watershed.

The dam also backed up enough water to create an impoundment now called Eau Galle Lake, on the shores of which is a 650-acre Corps of Engineers campground and recreation area.

Less impressively, the dam warmed the water downstream, killing the river's trout.

Fortunately, the story didn't end there.

The dam the Corps built always had a bottom draw, meaning water flowing from it exited its bottom.

But modifications to the draw were needed to allow the lake's coldest water to flow downstream.

At the request of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, those modifications were made by the Corps about five years ago.

Marty Engel, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources senior fisheries biologist, said the resulting cold water provided hope the Eau Galle immediately downstream of the dam could again hold trout.

But more was needed.

"When the Corps built the dam, they channelized (straightened) the river downstream, as it flowed through Spring Valley," Engel said.

The Corps also built a weir downstream, which slowed water, creating a large stagnant area.

To help rebuild the Eau Galle, and lay the groundwork for improvements that would help its trout fishery, the Corps contributed more than $200,000 to remove the weir.

Then the DNR, with help from the Eau Galle-Rush River Sportsman's Club, the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, the Ellsworth Rod & Gun Club and various Trout Unlimited Chapters-including the Twin Cities chapter-began the arduous work of re-creating the Eau Galle as it flowed through Spring Valley.

"We've been narrowing the river, speeding it up some, and re-creating its natural meander," Engel said.

For 21 miles below the dam the Eau Galle is considered Class II trout water by the Wisconsin DNR. That means it has some natural reproduction; in fact, the river's brook trout in that stretch are all wild.

Some of its brown trout are also wild. But most are from the thousands of browns stocked each spring and fall in the river by the Wisconsin DNR.

The other day, I took an exploratory trip to the Eau Galle, visiting first the 650-acre Eau Galle Recreation Area, including its campground, before traipsing along stretches of the river below the dam, in Spring Valley, and farther south, to Elmwood, Wis.

Much of this is tighter water than is typically found on the Rush and the Kinnickinnic. And a fair bit of it is overgrown, with canopies of tree limbs arching over the river.

But access was pretty good, particularly in Spring Valley itself, and at bridge crossings farther south, where legal Wisconsin stream entry can be gained, so long as anglers stay in the water while moving through private land.

"The Eau Galle has always been popular with locals for having good-sized fish but not a lot of fish," Engel said.

Brookies in the Eau Galle can reach the 14-inch range, while some brown trout grow as big as 20 inches.

Fish numbers are pretty good, too: In one stretch in and near Spring Valley, DNR fisheries technicians counted about 1,500 trout per mile.

That's impressive until you compare it to the Rush's 4,000 to 5,000 trout per mile, and the Kinnickinnic's 6,000 to 8,000 per mile.

American history is filled with stories about rivers being dammed to create power, control floods and/or to provide recreation.

In "the old days" _ which really weren't that long ago _ little advance attention was paid to the adverse effects these structures had on fish and wildlife.

Salmon in the Northwest, for example, are in perilous shape because dams there were built on the Columbia and other rivers with scant regard for these migratory fish.

Such mistakes were made even though in most instances only relatively inexpensive modifications would have accommodated the needs of most affected species.

In retrospect, these actions by the Corps of Engineers and many other state and federal agencies seem stupid.

Fortunately, we're smarter now.

Or are we?

How smart, for example, will we look 10 years from now when the chickens come home to roost from the current ethanol-plant-building frenzy?

These overgrown moonshine stills suck water from underground aquifers like there's no tomorrow, which in some parts of Minnesota - the Southwest particularly - there might not be, if more and more ethanol plants come on line.

The deferred environmental costs of the additional fertilizer and other chemicals dumped onto the land and, eventually, into our rivers to fuel this corn-for-fuel craze are incalculable.

As usual, cleanup costs will land on society's doorstep.

When that happens, here's hoping the restoration-in-progress of the Eau Galle is hoisted as an example of what can be accomplished to restore-and save-our natural heritage.

The other day, the Eau Galle was so off-color because of recent rains that it was nearly unfishable.

Still, through the translucent water, the occasional trout could be spotted behind a bridge abutment or a submerged log.

Finning against the current, the fish seemed a natural, and irreplaceable, part of the Eau Galle River.

As they should always be.