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North Fish Creek, a Wisconsin tributary to Lake Superior, is an important recreational fishery that is potentially limited by the loss of aquatic habitat caused by accelerated flooding and sedimentation. A study of the historical flooding and sedimentation characteristics of North Fish Creek was done to determine how North Fish Creek responded to human-caused changes in land cover since European settlement of the region in the 1870's. Geomorphic field evidence combined with hydrologic and sediment-transport modeling indicate that historical clear-cut logging, followed by agricultural activity, significantly altered the hydrologic and geomorphic conditions of North Fish Creek. The geomorphic responses to land-cover changes were especially sensitive to the location of the reaches along the main stem and on the timing of large floods.
On the basis of geomorphic evidence in flood-plain deposits and abandoned channels, the size of floods and sediment loads also increased in North Fish Creek after conversion of forested land to cropland and pasture. Changes in channel characteristics were particularly noticeable after record floods in 1941 and 1946. The upper main stem channel bed eroded downward at least 3 meters and the channel capacity at least doubled after European settlement. In the lower stem, the post-settlement sedimentation rate on the flood plain and in the channel is 4 to 6 times pre-settlement rates. The water table also appears to be rising near the mouth of North Fish Creek, perhaps consistent with (1) elevated local streambed elevations caused by sedimentation and (2) a slow relative rise in the local level of Lake Superior due to crustal rebound from glaciation. Along a transitional reach of the main stem between the upper and lower main stem, there is evidence of accelerated flood-plain sedimentation initially following European settlement. Since at least the 1940's, however, the channel bed in the transitional reach has eroded about 1 meter and the channel capacity has at least doubled.
Results from hydrologic and sediment-transport modeling indicate that modern flood peaks and sediment loads in North Fish Creek may be double that expected under pre-settlement forest cover. During maximum agricultural activity in the mid-1920's to mid-1930's, flood peaks probably were about 3 times larger and sediment loads were about 5 times larger than expected under pre-settlement forest cover. These results indicate that future changes from pasture or cropland to forest will help reduce flood peaks, thereby reducing erosion and sedimentation. The addition of detention basins (to decrease flood peaks) on tributaries to North Fish Creek, or bank and instream restoration (to decrease erosion) in the upper main stem, also may help reduce the contribution of sediment from the upper main stem to the transitional section and lower main stem of the creek.