The Clearwater River squiggled toward Minnesota Highway 15, where Dennis Loewen perched on the rim of a box culvert midway down the embankment, lowering a modified snow rake into sluggish, chocolatey water.

The Clearwater River squiggled toward Minnesota Highway 15, where Dennis Loewen perched on the rim of a box culvert midway down the embankment, lowering a modified snow rake into sluggish, chocolatey water.

At the end of the pole was an instantaneous flow gauge. Moving left to right, at each of 12 stops, Loewen, the Clearwater River Watershed District's assistant administrator, called depth and flow readings back to Cole Loewen, CRWD administrator (who is also Dennis' son).

Two-point-three. Zero-point-zero-three.

The river meanderings are man-made. The adjacent Kingston Wetland is altered. A man-made ditch, County Ditch 46, constructed in about 1916 to drain farm fields, is what led to the wetland alterations and, eventually, the re-meandering.

The Kingston Wetland restoration project, a five-year, $689,248 undertaking meant to clean up downstream lakes by boosting dissolved oxygen and cutting the amount of phosphorus entering the Clearwater River, officially wrapped up in September, the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/1ke3q0o ) reported.

It's the first project in Minnesota to address low dissolved oxygen levels without removing a dam or wastewater treatment plant. A $354,282 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant administered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency helped pay for testing, design and construction.

Construction — including re-meandered river bends, a rock weir and a limestone filter berm — finished in March 2013.

The wetland had been altered in the 1980s to divert particulate phosphorus. The ditch was broken where it entered the wetland. A diversion channel routed the river around the wetland; structures forced the water back into the wetland. It worked, bringing summertime total phosphorus levels from 400 to 40 micrograms per liter. Too much phosphorus promotes algae growth and, at the extreme, leads to fish kills.

But after 30 years, Cole Loewen said the wetland had started releasing soluble phosphorus back into the river.

From 2002 through 2008, the MPCA declared Lake Betsy plus five other downstream lakes in the Clearwater Chain impaired for aquatic recreation because of excessive nutrients. Phosphates in particular were blamed for murkier waters and more algae blooms.

Three segments of the Clearwater River were also declared impaired. Among them, the stretch from Clear Lake to Lake Betsy in 1996 because of dissolved oxygen and e. Coli.

Additionally, in 2004 the MPCA found the stretch between Clear Lake and Lake Betsy didn't meet minimum dissolved oxygen concentrations of 5 milligrams per liter. A 2009 study showed altered hydrology in the Kingston Wetland was a factor, and determined increased sediment was a cause. The sediment in the wetland was absorbing oxygen.

This project concentrated on the upper watershed, including the stretch from Clear Lake in Meeker County east to Lake Betsy south of Kimball.

The recommendation: Reduce the sediment oxygen demand by 60 percent, from 812 pounds to 325 pounds a day.

Now, high water levels send overflow into the wetland, which still removes particulate phosphorus. But when the water is low, it stays within the river channel. The diversion channel has been severed. Meanders increase the velocity. The limestone berm filters out phosphorus.

The end result: A reduction in the amount of soluble phosphorus released and carried downstream plus improved dissolved oxygen levels.

The first two years of post-construction test results show the Kingston Wetland Restoration Project is working.

Phosphorus, nitrate and dissolved oxygen levels have met project goals. Because flows have remained low, dissolved oxygen remains an issue.

Before the restoration, 69 percent of downstream dissolved oxygen readings violated state standards. After: 27 percent violated standards. Twenty percent less phosphorus was released to Lake Betsy, the first lake downstream from Kingston Wetland. Phosphorus levels above and below the wetland have evened out — showing the wetland is releasing less soluble phosphorus.

Jack Gleason, Lake Augusta Association president, said he's seen the water clear up and the algae bloom die back on the downstream lake where he and about 130 other property owners live.

"Anything that can be done upstream from our lake benefits us in many ways," said Gleason, who works for Medina's public works department.

When Lake Augusta saw a large blue-green algae bloom three years ago, the lake association invited CWRD staff to a meeting where property owners learned about the Kingston project.

"The more you can treat ahead of it, the better it is for us. We don't want to push the issue and say we want the watershed to take care of our lake," Gleason said.

The watershed drains about 43,500 acres upstream from the Kingston Wetland. The Clearwater River empties into the Mississippi River.

When Dennis and Cole Loewen gathered data Oct. 1, it was the first of two such outings planned for October. CRWP will continue to monitor sites above and below the wetland twice a month from ice-out through October. MPCA monitoring wound up when the project concluded in September.

A pair of deer blended into the cattails along an upstream bend visible from the highway. Farther upstream, blue-winged teal occupied another bend. Two years after backhoes moved earth and crews installed the limestone filter berm, the banks look natural. Dew weighed down tall grass. Willows sprouted near the shoreline.

Cole Loewen said the vegetation came back on its own, saving the CRWD money budgeted for planting. (The original grant was for $404,000.)

Farther upstream, the river bends loosened up a bit. The entire re-meandered stretch runs 6,100 feet. At the berm, the sound of trickling water merged with distant truck traffic on Highway 15. Here, riffles were visible on the sand-and-silt bottom. Raccoon tracks sank into the muddy bank.

Swales still mark the original riverbed. Aerial photos show how the re-meandering zigzags across the straight-line ditch.

"Back in the day that's what they did," said Phil Votruba, the MPCA's Brainerd/Baxter-based watershed project manager. "To restore some of those areas back to their natural state, that's a major undertaking. And doing so, you're going to get water quality benefits."

Project engineer Rebecca Kluckhohn of Wenck Associates said the Kingston Wetland restoration project was unusual in that it improved dissolved oxygen levels by changing the shape and size of the channel. Eventually, that channel will be allowed to meander a bit on its own — but the flow will be controlled.

Votruba said improvements in downstream lakes might translate to fisheries that can support more species. Already, Cole Loewen said he's seen the occasional bass in the Clearwater — a river dominated by carp.

"You can't expect these projects just to take everything that happened up until that point and restore it all back to normal," Votruba said. "It still takes the work of all of us as citizens in the state of Minnesota to protect our surface water resources because it's a watershed thing."