MOORHEAD - Wolverton Creek has long received the runoff of nearby farm fields. A tributary to the Red River, the creek deposits 14,000 tons of sediment per year into the river that's the source of Fargo-Moorhead's drinking water.
Phosphorus and nitrogen attach to particles in the runoff, and "You don't want to be drinking that," said Bruce Albright, administrator of the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District.
This is why officials are planning to restore the 21-mile-long creek, which spans Clay and Wilkin counties south of Moorhead, in the hopes of improving its water quality and, in turn, reducing the cost of treating Fargo-Moorhead's drinking water.
The watershed district, along with federal, state and local partners, is leading a $10.4 million restoration project that's 60 years in the making, Albright said.
People will not only taste the benefits, but see them among the north-flowing creek's improved flooding conditions and wildlife habitat. On a recent sunny afternoon, pheasants flocked near the frozen creek, sinking to their bellies in snowdrifts imprinted with deer and snowmobile tracks.
Kristopher Knutson, manager of Moorhead's water treatment plant, said the project will result in savings for water treatment costs. The plant spends between $900,000 and $1 million per year on water treatment for more than 45,000 residents in Moorhead and Dilworth.
Anything that reduces turbidity - or particles that make water appear murky - in the Red River will reduce costs on his end, Knutson said.
It's estimated that restoring Wolverton Creek, also known as the Comstock Coulee, will decrease sediment levels by 6,500 tons per year.
Sediment building up on the bottom of the creek over decades has caused water to become stagnant in some parts, to the point that it resembles chocolate milk, Albright said.
He points out other issues with the creek: banks full of dead trees and cattails forming on landlocked sediment in the middle of the creek that used to be 6 to 7 feet deeper. Some portions are dried up, and the stream is reduced to a trickle. Many of these problems date back to the 1950s, Albright said.
The most urgent issues near the mouth of the creek in Clay County were addressed in 2007.
The majority of the project in Wilkin County will kick off this spring.
Certain issues will require different solutions, Albright said, such as extracting sediment and expanding vegetative buffers that will enhance the habitats of pollinators.
A major part of the project involves meandering the creek, which was straightened over 100 years ago to increase drainage and crop production. Backhoes will be used to form a series of bends and curves that will extend the creek by about 5 miles and naturally balance the sediment loads rather than it all flushing downstream.
There are several sources of funding for the project. For those paying watershed district taxes, some of those tax dollars are contributing to the project. The watershed district designated $2 million toward the project, and other grants and programs will cover the remaining costs.
By December 2021, the overall project is expected to be completed.