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Serving: MN

Taming the wild side of Bitter Creek

Community and agency efforts shore up berm that protects area from flooding.

On a bitterly cold day in January, Bitter Creek blended in with Zumbrota’s winter scenery.

Frozen and covered with snow, the tiny creek was easy to miss as Beau Kennedy, manager of Goodhue Soil and Water Conservation District, pointed out where the stream cuts a narrow path through the town of 3,700 before disappearing into a culvert covered by the downtown.

Despite its unintimidating look, Bitter Creek historically has had a wild side.

For decades, when heavy rain fell on the hills overlooking Zumbrota, Bitter Creek ravaged the town.

“Flood-crazy stream” is what a national public-works magazine called Bitter Creek in 1960, adding that “after a heavy rainfall, Bitter Creek turns from a gentle, slow-moving stream into a raging torrent of destruction.”

Julius Johnmeyer, a farmer and grazier, didn’t know this history a few years ago when he approached Goodhue SWCD about an earthen dam eroding on his land above Zumbrota, a town along U.S. Hwy. 52 about 20 miles north of Rochester. Johnmeyer, who bought the farm a decade ago, didn’t know why he had a berm but figured it was to curb flooding.

“That’s not just a pond that somebody built,” he says.

His questions launched a locally led conservation process that led Johnmeyer to discover his dam was part of a five-berm system in the rural Zumbrota hillside that has controlled flooding for decades on Bitter Creek.

This system controls nearly 50% — 1,074 acres — of stormwater runoff in the Bitter Creek watershed, Kennedy says. Overall, about 2,450 acres drain to the point where Bitter Creek disappears under downtown Zumbrota, before flowing into the Zumbro River’s north fork upstream of the city’s historic covered bridge.

For the berm repair on Johnmeyer’s farm, funding came from Johnmeyer as well as the federal, state and city governments.

“Everybody involved paid some,” Johnmeyer says.

For the $34,500 project, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service gave funds through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that covered 54%, with Goodhue SWCD providing another 20% through its state local capacity funds. The rest was covered by the city of Zumbrota (15%) and Johnmeyer (11%).

In May 2022, about 2 inches of rain fell in Zumbrota but Bitter Creek never hopped its banks, Kennedy says. The uphill berms near the city help control those storm flows.

Thomas Steger, a retired, longtime NRCS conservationist in the Goodhue Field Office, agrees.

“The flood protection provided by the cooperative efforts in the Bitter Creek watershed continue to pay dividends to this day,” says Steger, who worked for NRCS for more than 40 years.

Uphill battle

In 2013, Johnmeyer moved with his wife, Cathy, from Missouri to Minnesota. They relocated to be closer to family after purchasing a rural Zumbrota farm that covers 90 acres of mostly grazing pasture with some woods. Johnmeyer stopped row cropping after the 2020 season.

Another 5 acres are owned by his son, Andrew. Under the family’s Green Machine Farm name, they raise beef, pork, chicken and eggs on the land to sell at farmers markets.

A lot of hilly terrain — mostly row cropland and some pasture — drains to the Johnmeyer berm that sits below a large hill.

“Just walking up [the hill] makes you breathe hard,” says Johnmeyer, who is no slouch; he’s an avid bicyclist who enjoys mountain-bike trails.

From the high point of the area that drains to the Johnmeyer dam, the elevation drops about 140 feet over 4,000 feet. From there, water flows about another 300 feet to Bitter Creek. When it rains, the berm’s pond can fill up fast, Johnmeyer says.

During his first years on the farm, Johnmeyer says, the berm worked well but then erosion started eating into it. He knew the dam would wash away if he didn’t get it fixed.

“They work if you keep them repaired,” Johnmeyer says.

Long history of flash floods

Bitter Creek’s flashiness mostly stems from a majority of its watershed acres being used for row crop agricultural production that provides less storage for stormwater, Kennedy says.

“Another big reason is that six small streams enter Bitter Creek right at the doorstep of Zumbrota,” Kennedy says. “Each tributary stream’s watershed is steep and narrow, with little water storage.”

Zumbrota has seen many times how fast Bitter Creek can rise and overwhelm the community.

In 1888, a spring rainstorm transformed the creek “from a dry run into a rushing river,” the Zumbrota News wrote.

Two years later, Zumbrota experienced a “cloud burst” and “hour of intense excitement” one afternoon as Bitter Creek roared out of its banks, carrying away houses, barns and outbuildings, the newspaper reported June 6, 1890. Bitter Creek’s extremely quick rise caught many off guard as it rose at least 15 feet in as many minutes.

Zumbrota suffered even worse damage from a June 1899 rainstorm.

“In an unusually short time, this peaceful, little ditch became a raging torrent, and the people who lived along its bank, remembering the flood of nine years ago (1890), began to carry everything movable to a higher point,” the Zumbrota Independent wrote. “Citizens began to gather along the bank and assisted in every way possible to save the property that was being carried rapidly toward the Zumbro River, but the water rose so rapidly that it was almost impossible to save anything that came in contact with it.”

Into the 1950s, the tiny creek continued to plague the city. According to a Zumbrota newspaper article, with heavy rains, Bitter Creek goes on a “ripping, slashing rampage,” affecting 32 homes and six businesses in its floodplain. That decade, a partnership developed among Goodhue SWCD, USDA NRCS, the city of Zumbrota and private landowners to address Bitter Creek’s flooding. This led to major culvert work done as part of an upgrading of today’s U.S. 52 at Zumbrota.

A 1960 publication, “Public Works: City, County and State,” ran a headline calling Bitter Creek “a flood-crazy stream.” It highlighted these efforts to control stormwater in Bitter Creek’s watershed by building corrugated metal pipe culverts that were large for that time in a 10-mile area. The journal called it “one of the biggest drainage structures ever installed in Minnesota.”

Yet, that still didn’t solve Zumbrota’s flooding woes.

In 1972, the Zumbrota City Council then asked the federal Soil Conservation Service — today’s USDA NRCS — to look at the watershed. From this study, four grade-stabilization and flood-control structures were built in Bitter Creek’s uplands, including the berm on Johnmeyer’s farm. About 935 acres, or 38% of the watershed, drained to the four berms.

Funding for those dams mostly came from USDA NRCS and Goodhue SWCD, but the city of Zumbrota and landowners also gave money.

“These landowners didn’t have to build these dams, nor are they obligated to keep them in place,” Kennedy says. “The city and SWCD, at the time, made the case to the landowners that watershed retention is important for storing sediment and reducing downstream flooding. And they agreed.”

After those four were built, Zumbrota chose in 1981 to send Bitter Creek into a box culvert covered by its downtown, allowing for a public parking lot.

Since then, dams have needed minor repairs and maintenance. At times, the landowners did that work on their own; other times, they applied for cost-share funding through Goodhue SWCD or asked for city support.

In the 1990s, a pipe failure happened on Johnmeyer’s dam, when it was owned by the prior landowner. That was fixed under the direction of NRCS, with the repair’s cost split among the landowner, SWCD and the city.

Johnmeyer’s berm is a “significant flood-reduction asset” to Zumbrota, Kennedy says.

Fixing the Bitter berm

A few years ago, Johnmeyer noticed lots of stormwater running around the pipe of his berm, eroding a large chunk of the dam’s back side. He reached out to Goodhue SWCD, which had the berm’s original plans. Kennedy started finding repair funds and getting SWCD and NRCS staff working on designs. Johnmeyer then applied in 2020 for federal EQIP funds and got NRCS approval.

NRCS funds could not cover enough of the repair, but Goodhue SWCD agreed to provide up to 75% — its max percentage — in cost-share assistance, using state-capacity funds. The city of Zumbrota then agreed to put in money.

City staff, the mayor and council all agreed that partnering with Goodhue SWCD, USDA NRCS and the landowner for the repair was a good investment, says Brian Grudem, Zumbrota’s city administrator.

“We recognize the importance of the dams for sediment reduction and, more importantly for the city, the flood reduction that they provide,” Grudem says.

Thankfully, the 2021 construction season was mostly dry for the berm’s repair.

“If it was a wet year, it wouldn’t be here anymore. There’d be a hole in it,” Johnmeyer says.

Chris Fritz, a conservation engineering technician for Goodhue SWCD, worked on-site during construction with an NRCS engineer, who had approval authority for that size of a dam.

Johnmeyer, who paid to remove sediment filling the pond, enjoys having the pond most times of the year; aside from raising wood ducks on it, however, he doesn’t use it much. But he knows its benefits.

Even when full — water up to the dam’s spillway — there’s another 4 feet or so for stormwater to rise behind it, Johnmeyer says.

“It can store a lot of water,” he says.

Future flood reduction

In the past year, Goodhue SWCD and partners completed the Zumbro River “One Watershed, One Plan,” a comprehensive, water management plan based on watershed boundaries rather than typical political county lines.

This plan, created with the approval of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, will open state funds for use in 2022 and beyond for projects like the berm repair at Johnmeyer’s farm, Kennedy says.

Increasing upland stormwater storage is a priority of the new Zumbro plan, Kennedy says, noting its history of being effective.

In 1998, heavy rains caused Bitter Creek to erode its streambanks near the Zumbrota-Mazeppa High School in Zumbrota. NRCS responded with emergency funds and technical assistance to stabilize the banks.

The city also wanted to provide flood protection, leading to another review of Bitter Creek’s watershed that showed a fifth upland site for a flood-control dam.

Landowners and the city reached an agreement and cost-share assistance was approved, leading in spring 2002 to a structure being built to manage runoff from another 139 acres. It stands 19 feet high, with a spillway pipe 12 inches in diameter.

Soon after completion, more than 6 inches of rain fell in June 2002, with 3.5 inches dropping in one rainstorm, NRCS reported. Water filled the new structure to its spillway pipe, which released water in a controlled way.

Later that month, another 3.5 to 4 inches of rain fell in the Zumbrota area, filling the structure to within 6 inches of its emergency spillway.

In Zumbrota, however, Bitter Creek was flowing about 50% to 75% within its bank capacity.

“There were flooding problems on the main channel of the north branch of the Zumbro River,” NRCS reported, “but not along Bitter Creek.”

And that’s what the local partnership of Goodhue SWCD, USDA NRCS, city of Zumbrota and upland landowners hopes will continue to be the case.

Ruzek is the water plan and outreach coordinator for Mower Soil and Water Conservation District-Cedar River Watershed District.

Source: Minnesota Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all of its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.


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