The water flow on a little creek in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is modest.
In fact, the stream is small enough that it has no name. Officially, it’s Unnamed Tributary to Morgan Creek.
But on July 11, 2016, it was just one of the unassuming streams that heavy rainfall turned into rushing rivers in this area of the National Forest.
“Roads were gone. Bridges were gone. Culverts were gone,” said Jim Mineau, a hydrologist for the National Forest.
This area is near the Ashland-Bayfield county line. It sustained as much as nine inches of rainfall in just six hours.
“It’s about ground zero as far as impacts that we saw,” Mineau said.
Heavy flooding impacted almost 800 square miles of the National Forest. Around 300 miles of forest roads were damaged and closed.
Forest Road 199, a gravel tract, hugs the stream. The small waterway jumped its banks and eroded that road down 12 feet from its former level. Of course, that made it impassible.
“This is the access road, one of the access roads, where folks would come up to get to our Morgan Falls and St. Peter’s Dome trailhead. That is probably the most-used day-trip hiking trailhead, definitely on the district, but quite possibly on the Forest,” said Chad Jacobson, the recreation program manager in the Great Divide District on the National Forest.
At the hiking site, trails were washed away and footbridges were thrown downstream.
“It was sitting right there,” Jacobson said, pointing to where one footbridge landed. “Couple hundred feet from where it should have been.”
“It was just catastrophic.”
But after four years of hard work, the road is replaced, trails are fixed, and tough new bridges are in.
Visitors can once again access picturesque Morgan Falls, where water flows relatively gently over a rock face.
The repairs at his popular hiking spot mirror those in the National Forest at large, where almost all roads have reopened.
Still, the work continues, like on retaining walls and culverts where streams cross or are near roadways.
Mineau spends a lot of time thinking about culverts underneath roads, choosing ones that are big enough, strong enough, and durable enough for a century of use – and maybe a century of flooding.
“We’re trying to get these to last as long we can, because we know it’s going to be a long time before we can fiscally come back here,” Mineau said.
There are about 1,500 culverts on the Forest, and workers replace about 15 per year.
At that rate, it will take 100 years to get through them all before starting all over.
“It’s sort of like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Mineau. “We’re working on getting some replaced, but by the time we get them all done, we’re going to have to start over on the original ones.”
Sue Reinecke agreed the culvert replacement cycle feels like riding a merry-go-round.
Reinecke is a fisheries biologist for the National Forest. Part of her job includes making sure the culverts work for fish needing to move upstream and downstream to feed and spawn.
“This would be predominantly [brook trout], sculpins, and one or two minnows like blacknose dace,” she said, listing species in the nearby stream.
In some places, new culverts work.
In other cases, the flood forced the National Forest to go bigger.
“This was a 12-foot diameter culvert that washed out and is being replaced by this bridge,” Mineau said, looking over a new timber bridge construction.
The bridge over Eighteen Mile Creek, spanning 80 feet, is one of three still being worked on in the Forest.
Each serves as a reminder to Forest staff.
“It teaches you to think about things a little differently, because you know that if we do get another storm like that, all of the investment, all of the time, the blood, sweat, and tears you put into that is for nothing,” Jacobson said.
It could be another 100 or 1,000 years before this area of the Forest sees another rainfall event like the one in 2016.
Or, as the climate continues to change, it could be just a few years.
Either way, hydrologist Jim Mineau thinks work on the Forest since the 2016 has made a difference.
“When you get to a flood of that magnitude, all bets are off,” he said. “But I think the area is a lot more prepared, I guess you could say, for a flood.”