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Willow River water quality is on the decline

Pictured on trout opening day on the Willow River in 1993 is Andy Roettger (son of Ron Roettger, Star Prairie).

In the last column I wrote a bit about the Apple River and how the river is a focal point for nutrient load reduction as it flows into the St. Croix River north of Somerset.

Along these same lines, the Willow River has been identified as a major contributor to the St. Croix River problems with plans to reduce its nutrient load also. Soon allowable nutrient levels will be set with money becoming available to achieve the goals set forth. We need to follow up and get the job done if we want to keep the Willow River a viable natural resource.

A friend and I recently waded and fished a mile or so section of the North Fork of the Willow River upstream from New Richmond. We were amazed at how water quality and river bed integrity had declined.

The three hours of angling produced only a dozen 10-inch chubs and a few shiners, with not a single trout hit. Due to the lack of rain, the water was low and warm with the river bed covered in a fine coating of silt making walking treacherous.

The Willow River originates in Polk County near Clear Lake and flows southwesterly across St. Croix County, where it discharges into the St. Croix River at Hudson. It has a surface acreage of 291 acres. It is listed as 40 miles in length but meanders through the county for approximately 70 miles at a mean low flow rate of 59 cubic feet per second (CFS) and drops an average of 5 feet per mile.

The Upper Willow River watershed encompasses 113,600 acres of which 79 percent are in St. Croix County. The river has many feeder streams also. Those located upstream from New Richmond include Dry Run, Hutton Creek, Jack Green Creek, Carr Creek, Wolf Creek, Black Brook and a few small unnamed streams.

Paperjack Creek, entering west of New Richmond, and Ten Mile Creek, entering the river south of Boardman, are two other main tributaries.

The Willow River can be broken down into several sections. The North Fork of the Willow River is the term utilized from the headwaters starting near Clear Lake to the confluence of the South Fork of the Willow River which enters the stream just east of the County Highway T crossing east of New Richmond.

After the North and South Forks of the Willow River merge, the Willow River is formed and flows to New Richmond into the New Richmond Widespread. After leaving New Richmond over the New Richmond dam, it flows down toward Boardman and Burkhardt and into the Willow River State Park where it enters Little Falls Flowage.

Leaving Little Falls Flowage it splits near where it exits from the park into the Willow River and the Willow River Race to rejoin again and flow into Lake Mallalieu, which is formed by the Lake Mallalieu dam. Below this dam it enters the St. Croix River which flows into the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico where it completes its trip to the sea.

The Willow River presently has three dams remaining over its entire course. These are the New Richmond dam, Little Falls dam in the Willow River State Park and Lake Mallalieu dam located between Hudson and North Hudson. In the past there were several more dams constructed on the Willow River that were either washed out in early floods or removed in the course of returning the river to its natural flow. The Willows Falls dam was removed in 1992 while the Mounds Pond dam was removed in 1997. Both of these dams were located in the Willow River State Park proper.

The Willow River is a relatively slow moving river but will experience some dramatic water level fluctuations in times of spring floods or heavy rainfall. The river has a 175-square-mile drainage area upstream from New Richmond. One has only to walk the river way and observe the flood debris deposited in the overhead tree branches to realize how remarkable these water fluctuations can become.

Floods have been recorded on the river as early as 1876 with the most severe flooding recorded in 1893, 1934, 1965 and 1967. The highest recorded peak discharge occurred in 1965 at 6,400 cubic feet per second according to the "St. Croix River Draft Feasibility Report and Environmental Assessment" dated February 1986. Recently the United States Geological Survey has cited the Willow River as a major contributor of suspended sediments and nutrients into the St. Croix River.

In 1855 B.C.B. Foster settled in the area of what is now known as Glover Park in New Richmond. This area had a shallow crossing on the river and became known as Foster's Crossing, then Cold Springs, Richmond and finally New Richmond.

New Richmond was incorporated as a village in 1892 and a city in 1895. The river in the early days was used to float logs down to the St. Croix and to provide water power for milling of grain and also electrical generation.

On June 12, 1899 the city of New Richmond was almost completely destroyed by a devastating tornado which has been listed as the eighth most devastating killer tornado to hit the United States in recorded history. The Willow River was the center around which the City of New Richmond rebuilt itself.

According to Department of Natural Resource records, the original dam in New Richmond was built in 1858 and replaced in 1925. In 1991 a mandatory drawdown order of the widespread flowage by the DNR for safety reasons was issued. On Oct. 16, 1997 the "new" New Richmond dam was dedicated.

Prior to the last drawdown much work on the Willow River was initiated by the Upper Willow Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District. Money was raised in the district to improve water quality and in 1981 a project was funded to dredge the New Richmond Widespread Flowage. Dredge material taken from the bottom of the flowage was used to raise the swampy area along the west side of the play area of Starr (West) Elementary School near Highway 65 and was also deposited as fill at the Paperjack (East) Elementary School's present location.

Installation of riprap on high erosion areas upstream from the flowage was also undertaken. This riprap has proven very successful. The riprap remains in place to this day providing stream bank retention and habitat protection.

The Willow River is a very diverse river in terms of water type and quality. It can be termed a "cool water" stream compared to "cold water" which is true trout water and "warm water" which provides habitat for warm water fish species.

The Willow River flows through areas that are very low, slow and swampy like the Cylon Wildlife Area east of Deer Park and faster steeper areas like those located in the Willow River State Park. Spring seepage in some areas provides colder water temperatures that can warm and then become cooler again with more spring seepage.

Wider parts of the Willow River tend to be shallower, slower and therefore warm very quickly. Narrower areas provide faster water speed, increased water depth and are usually sheltered from the sun and tend to keep a cooler water temperature. As one moves through the Willow River waterway, these conditions ebb and flow and change mile by mile.

The Willow River fishery also changes as one moves throughout the course of the waterway. Brown trout are the main trout species throughout the river but brook and rainbow trout are present. The South Fork of the Willow River is managed for brook trout and there are residual areas that have remnant native brook trout populations throughout the river system. Brook trout are the only truly native trout species in the Willow River.

Browns and rainbows have their origin outside Wisconsin. Fish species that inhabit the reservoirs, flowages and parts of the river system are northern pike, walleyes, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegills, perch, black crappies, pumpkinseeds, green sunfish and a variety of forge fish and minnows.

Trout have been planted or stocked into the waters of the Willow River since the late 1800's and continues to this day. In the past, the Willow River received annual spring plantings of legal sized trout along with sporadic plantings of surplus trout when and if they became available from the Department of Natural Resources. Over the last few years, because of budget cuts due to insufficient license fee increases, the Department of Natural Resources had to cut stocking quotas.

St. Croix County is the fastest growing county in Wisconsin. Despite growing urbanization, the future for the preservation and restoration of the Willow River looks promising if we can implement the current plans now being formulated. Foresight and hard work of those individuals and organizations that hold the Willow River near and dear to their hearts can get the job done. Stay tuned.