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Follow a storm through Tischer Creek...

Over 12,000 pounds of habitat smothering, gill fouling mud came past our sensor in just a few hours from this storm.

Sediments in Lester River
Sediment laden Lester River during a storm.

Learn more about erosion at:

Soil Erosion and Sediment Pollution

Although sediment is a part of the natural environment, human activities sometimes increase the amount that ends up in our streams. These sediments are usually fine grained sands, silts and clays that can cover up coarser sediments and the spaces between rocks and cobbles that provide habit for aquatic life.

Responsible construction practices and landscaping can greatly reduce the amount of sediments entering our streams.

Excess eroded sediment degrades habitat

  • Suspended sediment decreases the penetration of light into the water. This affects fish feeding and schooling practices, and can lead to reduced survival.
  • Sediment reduces the amount of light penetrating the water, depriving the plants of light needed for photosynthesis.
  • Sediment particles absorb warmth from the sun and thus increase water temperature. This can stress some species of fish.
  • Settling sediment can bury and suffocate fish eggs and bury the gravel nests they rest in.
  • Suspended sediment in high concentrations can dislodge plants, invertebrates, and insects in the stream bed. This affects the food source of fish, and can result in smaller and fewer fish.
Good habitat Bad habitat

The stream-bottom sediments on the left provide spaces for fish to lay eggs and for invertebrates to live and hide. Excess erosion has deposited fine grained sediments on the stream bottom to the right. There are no spaces available for fish spawning or for invertebrate habitat.

  • Excess sediment from eroding soils contains organic matter that contributes to oxygen depletion in the water as it is decomposed.
  • Eroding soils also contribute the nutrients nitrogen, and especially phosphorus. In low nutrient streams and recovering waters such as Duluth's streams and Lake Superior, these can contribute to algal growth and oxygen depletion.
  • Suspended sediment in high concentrations irritates the gills of fish, and can cause death.
  • Sediment can destroy the protective mucous covering the eyes and scales of fish, making them more susceptible to infection and disease.
  • Sediment may carry toxic agricultural and industrial compounds such as heavy metals and pesticides. If these are released in the habitat they can cause abnormalities or death in the fish.
  • Sediment loads in our waterways often result in further increased erosion and instability of stream banks, causing stream channels to become wider and shallower, which leads to warmer water temperature.

Schematic adapted from "Turbidity: A Water Quality Measure", Water Action Volunteers, Monitoring Fact sheet Series, UW-Extension, Environmental Resources Center. It is a generic, un-calibrated impact assessment model based on Newcombe, C. P., and J. O. T. Jensen. 1996. Channel suspended sediment and fisheries: a synthesis for quantitative assessment of risk and impact. North American Journal of Fisheries Management. 16: 693-727.

Where does excess sediment come from?

Sediment is a natural part of the ecosystem. Streams transport sediment washed in from the watershed and deposit it on natural bars or into the larger rivers and lakes that they empty into. Problems occur, however, when activities such as road construction, building construction, landscaping, logging, or poorly managed farming remove the protective vegetative covering from soils. Loose sediments are then free to wash into the streams with surface water runoff during rain storms. The dirt and sand that builds up on city streets is also a source of sediment, as this gets washed into streams through the storm water system.

The streams, themselves, can also be a source of excess sediment.As stream flows increase, the increased amount of water leads to stream bank erosion. The sediment that was a part of the stream bank then enters the stream, further increasing the suspended sediment concentrations and loads. Stream flows increase when we remove forests, fill in wetlands or add impervious surfaces (click here to read more).

How can sediment pollution be controlled?

In order to minimize the amount of sediment free to wash into streams during construction and silt fence landscaping activities, a sediment control plan must be created and implemented before there is a problem. First-off, minimizing the amount of land disturbed can significantly reduce the amount of erosion, and reduces the area where sediment needs to be controlled. Sediment management techniques include installing silt fences, structural modifications, diversion ditches, sediment traps and basins. In order to be effective, these techniques must be properly installed and, of equal importance, maintained over the duration of the project. Once construction activities are complete, mulch and vegetation should be applied to bare surfaces as soon as possible to anchor the soil in place.

Big construction projects aren't the only source of sediment pollution. Homeowners can help by minimizing vehicle traffic on vegetated surfaces during muddy, wet conditions. Avoid sweeping the sand, grit and roadsalt left over from winter road maintenance back onto the street. It will drain into the storm drains and end up in the streams. Also, stockpiles of sand, gravel and soil for those summer projects should be placed in areas that are not natural watercourses during storms. They should be located far enough away from those watercourses (including roads and driveways) that they cannot wash into them during big storms. Also, covering these piles with a tarp will keep the rain from eroding them away.

How do we measure suspended sediment in streams?

DuluthStreams staff estimate total suspended sediment concentration (TSS) in several ways ranging from simple transparency tubes to complex automated sensors. The simple, inexpensive transparency tubes are the cornerstone of the State's Volunteer Stream Monitoring Program. Middle School Young Scientists used them to monitor Tischer Creek from October 2002 through June 2003.