High Bank Creek Restoration

This spring, Barry Conservation District wrapped up work on the last of several linked projects to improve habitat quality and stream function on High Bank Creek. Read more below!

Project Timeline

High Bank Creek has a long and interesting history. Here is a quick look at some of the major events on High Bank Creek and Barry Conservation District restoration efforts.

dam old1940s and earlier
The project site featured a dam and an operating grist mill in the town of Morgan.

The family of current landowner knocked down the former dam’s cement abutment as a safety precaution. Remnants of the walls remained in the creek, causing changes to the creek’s natural structure and function.

dam pre construction2 1991
A DNR electrofishing study of High Bank Creek confirmed the presence of 25 fish species, including brown bullhead and grass pickerel, but indicated that fish abundance among all species was low and that brown trout recruitment was also low.
An unpublished DNR survey of the creek reported only 15 species. Among the absent species were brown bullhead and grass pickerel.
A DEQ Biological Survey rated High Bank Creek at Bivens Road excellent for macro invertebrate community.

Major flooding caused massive bank erosion- widths of 2’-5’ at 2’-3’ depths- in the unstable channel above the Morgan Dam.
High Banks Bridge



The 8’ Lawrence Rd culvert was replaced by a 35’ bridge which allows the stream to flow at bankfull width. Project partners: MDOT, BCRC, USFWS.

The remnants of the Morgan Dam were removed (USFWS grant). Two perched and undersized culverts along the creek were replaced with appropriately-sized culverts (MDNR grant).


1200’ of streambank was restored along the creek with funding from MDNR. Substrate, macroinvertebrate, and fish passage studies were conducted.
Final planting done on the High Bank Creek restoration site.

New stream-restoration approach may pay dividends in Michigan
Michigan Department of Natural Resources, October 9, 2015

The site of the former Morgan Dam, one month post-restoration.

The site of the former Morgan Dam, one month post-restoration.

A relatively new technique for stabilizing eroding stream banks is showing great promise in Michigan, as a demonstration project on High Bank Creek in Barry County has not only repaired a damaged creek, but has provided excellent fish habitat as well.
The technique, called “toe wood,” has been around for about a decade but hasn’t been used much in Michigan until now. Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Chris Freiburger learned of the technique and thought it had applications for some of the issues facing Michigan streams.

The area Freiburger chose for the demonstration project involved a stream that had been dammed for a mill more than a century ago. The dam had been partially removed in the 1920s, but the abutments were left in place until the landowner knocked them down into the creek out of safety concerns. The debris formed a partial dam that not only impeded fish passage, but also contributed to erosion on the stream. A significant amount of sediment was swept downstream, silting in about an acre and a half of Thornapple Lake. The Barry Conservation District applied for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish passage grant, as well as a DNR aquatic habitat grant to remove the dam and restore the stream.

“The thought used to be that you could remove a dam and just leave,” Freiburger said. “Sometimes you can, but that isn’t always the best thing to do. Many times we need to stabilize the stream, too, and this landowner was agreeable to stabilizing the stream.”

After the dam was removed, the conservation district hired an engineer to work with Freiburger to design a restoration project. A long set of rapids, made up of bowling ball-sized boulders, was built downstream to address the grade. Engineer Mike Geenen, a Michigan native who now lives in Colorado and works with Fort Collins-based Watershed Restoration LLC, studied the creek upstream – finding its width, depth and length of its meanders — and designed the channel realignment using toe wood.

“It’s a relatively new science, but this technique has worked out pretty much everywhere,” Geenen said. “It provides stability but also produces better habitat.”

Stream habitat improvement project (Toewood) in High Bank Creek, Barry County - in the Thornapple River watershed near Nashville Mi.

Engineer Mike Geenan discusses the project with landowner Russ Chaffee. Collaborating with landowners is a crucial component of Barry Conservation District programs. Photo credit: MDNR

Brandon Spaugh, of North State Environmental, Inc. – a North Carolina firm that specializes in river and wetland restorations and often works with Geenen — brought in a crew to do the work. As Spaugh explains the technique, the crew excavates an erosion site, building a shelf on which the crew sets logs – the toe wood – that overhangs the stream bottom. The logs are then covered with smaller diameter logs, slash and brush, and then dirt and sod collected from the surrounding area. The sod could include shrubs and trees – in some cases up to 10-foot-tall willows – that generally survive transplantation.

“We’re after immediate stability,” Spaugh said. “With higher flows, the bottom will be scoured out under the toe wood and you have guaranteed fish habitat.” Geenen said toe wood “is a relatively easy structure to understand and build, and it’s inexpensive when compared to hauling in rock.

“We just finished a project in Minnesota, and two weeks after we finished we saw schools of fish in there. They found the spots where they wanted to be right away,” Geenen said. “We know how to stabilize streams, how to move water, how to move sediment and maintain stream function and allow fish passage, but by building these structures, we create better habitat at the same time.”

A week after the project was completed, a DNR electrofishing crew surveyed the area and found that fish had made themselves at home around the structures. The deep pools created by the scouring effect under the toe wood will help fish survive winter as well as during periods of drought, while the overhead cover the structures create should reduce avian predation and increase fish survival, Freiburger said.

“Toe wood does a lot of things but there are two primary goals: to reduce bank erosion on the outside bends and increase and improve habitat for invertebrates and fish,” Freiburger said. “The benefit of toe wood is that where you had sheer, clay banks, you now have a flood plain,” he said. “And you’ve got wood below the surface that’s under the water even during periods of low flow, so it’ll take a century or more before the wood deteriorates. And we all know that wood is important to anglers.”

Indeed, anglers and angler groups have been installing wood structures in trout streams to provide fish cover for a century or more. But Freiburger questions whether they’ve always been located properly so they didn’t interfere with other river functions, such as sediment transport.

“This is a structure, just like any other structure that’s ever been built,” said Freiburger, who invited the DNR’s heavy equipment operators to the demonstration so they could understand the technique. “But were those other structures truly meeting their goals?”

In addition to creating new banks along eroded outside bends in the stream at Highbank Creek, the construction crew cut down the point bars that were built by sediment deposition and reconnected the realigned channel to the flood plain.

“That helps move sediment in the stream and reduces the velocity of the stream to relieve the erosion on the outside banks,” Freiburger said. The DNR plans to use the toe wood technique to restore an eroded bank just upstream of Lyons Dam, when it is removed next summer. Freiburger expects toe wood to play a big role in future river restoration and habitat projects.

“You can’t just throw stuff in the river and expect it to work,” he said. “You have to make sure it is compatible with river processes.”

Restoration Project on High Bank Creek Benefits Local Community While Educating Students

Adapted from an article in the Hastings Reminder, September 19, 2016

While the efforts on High Bank Creek aimed to naturalize its structure and flow as well as improve wildlife habitat, the project also provided an enriching opportunity to research the impacts of conservation practices on stream ecology.

Grand Valley State University (GVSU) undergraduate students Olivia Cooley and Nick Preville received funding through the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute (PCCI) Undergraduate Research Grants for the Environment program to spend the summer collecting and analyzing fish and macroinvertebrate data from High Banks Creek.

Michigan DNR crew, along with GVSU students and BCD staff, capture and mark fish along the creek to monitor improvements in fish passage before and after the project.

Michigan DNR crew, along with GVSU students and BCD staff, capture and mark fish along the creek to monitor improvements in fish passage before and after the project.

Preville, a 2013 graduate of Bath High School, commented on how beneficial the field experience was for professional development.

“Getting to know other researchers and industry professionals is going to be huge going forward. The connections I made and the experiences I gained will really help when it comes time to apply for jobs.”
Cooley, a 2013 graduate of Thornapple-Kellogg High School agrees, “It was really great to get experience in the real world doing something that is actually important. In college, you mainly just sit in lectures…and this summer I was doing stuff that was real and meant something.”

Although construction was completed in September 2015, BCD will continue to partner with GVSU professor Dr. Eric Snyder and his students to monitor the creek for several years.