2016 finalist 

This project has been selected as a finalist in the Natural Resources category:

grand marais creek outlet restoration

Project Summary

Having the chance to restore six miles of river is an exciting opportunity. Talk of such a project with the Red Lake Watershed District goes back to 1988. However, the challenge began long before that in the name of erosion reduction and flood control. The Grand Marais Creek outlet had steadily eroded since the early 1900s, when a drainage system petition was approved to divert the Grand Marais Channel to an outlet ditch—or “Cutoff Ditch”— ultimately eroding itself into a deep and unmanageable gully over the years. This resulted in a complete loss of the lower six miles of Grand Marais Creek, including the connectivity from the Red River to the upper 20-mile reach. The drainage ditch was also responsible for dumping an average of 700 tons of sediment annually to the Red River. The original Grand Marais Creek outlet reach was filled with sediment and farmed during dry years. As a result, the hydrology, riparian and aquatic habitat, sustainable fish passage, local drainage capabilities, and outlet channel stability was lost. Erosion also created significant land loss throughout the area.

After years of talk, the project finally became a reality in 2007, when the Red Lake Watershed District secured project funding assistance from multiple interests including a grant for $2.3 million in Legacy funding for the massive restoration effort.

To reverse 100 years of erosion damage, this project restored the physical and hydrologic characteristics of this six-mile reach of original natural channel. A diversion structure redirected flows from the drainage ditch and restored them to the natural channel. The restored hydrology sustains aquatic habitat and nearly 400 acres of wetland and prairie native vegetation habitat along the Grand Marais Creek corridor. The project targeted restoring habitat to a variety of spawning and juvenile fish species and waterfowl, as well as restoring a permanent and seasonal riparian ecosystem for aquatic and terrestrial plant and upland animal species. Healthy channel connectivity now exists between the Red River and upstream riverine and wetland habitats within the Grand Marais Creek subwatershed.

Project Partners

  • Red Lake Watershed District
  • Middle Snake Tamarac Rivers Watershed District
  • Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources
  • Houston Engineering, Inc.
  • US Fish and Wildlife Services
  • Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council
  • Working Lands Initiative
  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
  • West Polk Soil and Water Conservation District
  • Red River Watershed Management Board
  • Polk County

How did the project partners work together?

The project is an effective example of implementing a comprehensive, locally-driven watershed-based project that successfully used multiple private and public funding sources to restore habitat, reduce peak runoff, and improve water quality. It is a showcase project of a cooperative effort between agricultural and natural resource interests to collectively improve land use.

The Red Lake Watershed District led the project with technical support from HEI and MNDNR. Initial Legacy funding for the project led to buy-in from other project partners, and over time several federal, state, and local sources joined the charge. This commitment from multiple entities led to the construction of such a large-scale restoration.

A project of this size naturally affects landowners and communities near the project location. Project partners met with the public and listened to concerns, which mainly involved fears of flooding and drainage as well as transportation across the restored channel. To address this, the final design included innovative private and public road crossings to allow ATVs, vehicles, and large agricultural implements to efficiently and safely cross the restored channel. Issues of flooding and drainage were also addressed to get the public on board with the restoration that will ultimately help end land loss and other resource issues in the area.

How is the project groundbreaking?

This project provided a unique opportunity for the local landowners, state and local governments to come together and develop a solution to a long-standing land management and environmental problem collaboratively. Because of the significant size of the project (6 miles of channel restoration), and the effects to a significantly large watershed (excess of 300 square miles), a tremendously diverse group of stakeholders and interests had to be managed throughout the project. The District used the project team approach to engage these interests in developing the project features and to create solutions along the way. This project serves as a model in the Red River Valley on how to manage and construct large river restoration project segments that maintain the social, economic, and natural resource values for the local community.

What are the project goals?

  • Restore and sustain aquatic, riparian, riverine and prairie habitat
  • Restores and reconnect the public waters watercourse interests of the entire Grand Marais Creek corridor. Improves seasonal public hunting (waterfowl), trapping (furbearers) and fishing opportunities from the Red River through the restored channel.
  • Provide for fish passage abilities and use of spawning habitat throughout the upper reaches of the Grand Marais Creek.
  • Reduce existing flood stages immediately upstream of the project limits.
  • Minimize flood impacts throughout channel restoration segment through establishment of flowage easements and permanent RIM buffers.
  • Improved positive and stable drainage during local runoff events as well as Red River Floods.
  • Provide stable outlet and restore hydrology (300-square-mile drainage area) at the outlet of the Grand Marais subwatershed.

What are the project outcomes?

All project construction, including the final diversion dam was completed in the summer of 2015. The new project has restored six miles of natural stream channel habitat, restoring connectivity between more than 20 miles of stream habitat and the Red River of the North. This will provide seasonal fish spawning and nursery habitat, which will increase the resiliency of the river’s ecosystem. Restoring hydrologic and hydraulic conditions to the Grand Marais Creek required the restoration of nearly 400 acres of marginal agricultural land to a functional native vegetation habitat. This involves a mix of prairie floodplain, riparian wetlands, and natural channel within Minnesota’s prairie eco region.

With the restoration complete, our team takes in the scope of the restoration and eagerly awaits the signs of success likely to begin in the 2016 growing season. These will include restored wildlife, full flow diversion to the new channel, and lush river landscape in a historic river valley. Like the other projects in the Red River valley that have restored connectivity to historic river reaches and shown incredible responses within the fishery, the expectations for this spring are high for Grand Marais Creek.

Event Details

Thursday, May 25, 2017
5:00 - 5:45 p.m. Registration & reception
5:45 - 8:00 p.m. Dinner & program
8:00 - 9:00 p.m. Dessert & reception 

Nicollet Island Pavilion
40 Power Street
Minneapolis, MN 55401

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Presenting Sponsors

Environmental Lay Group

Great River Energy

Reception sponsor

25th Anniversary Sponsors


Community Action

Critical Collaborator

Stoel Rives LLP

Emerging Leader


Energy and Climate

The Weidt Group

Natural Resources

Sustainable Business

Supporting Sponsors

Minnesota Power

partner SPONSORs

In-kind sponsors


CliftonLarsonAllen LLP

Consulate General of Canada

Rochester Public Utilities

Associate Sponsors

Bremer Bank
G & K Services
Nova Consulting
Smith Partners