Investing in Green
Stream Restorations Shore Up Infrastructure, Academics
- By Matt Fredmonsky
- August 1st, 2015
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE DAVEY TREE EXPERT COMPANY
Two college campuses in Northeast Ohio were left to pick up the pieces of Mother Nature’s wanton destruction following heavy erosion caused by years of rainstorms.
At Ursuline College, a college with about 1,500 students 13 miles east of Cleveland, a tornado that damaged several buildings — in addition to leveling the school gymnasium — proved the final straw for a severely eroded stream fed by culverts that drained impervious surfaces across campus.
For Hiram College, a private school of about 1,300 tucked into the rural rolling hills 40 miles southeast of Cleveland, years of heavy rains had washed away tons of soil from the banks of Eagle Creek, a high-quality tributary of the Mahoning River adjacent to the college’s J.H. Barrow Field Station.
Administrators at both schools found themselves faced with the dilemma of the need to restore waterways for the benefit of both the school and surrounding community.
Hiram Adds to Field Station
“Our biggest reason for getting involved is the proximity of Eagle Creek to the Hiram community and the field station,” says Jim Metzinger, associate director of the J.H. Barrow Field Station at Hiram College.
The field station, established in 1967, serves as an active research and educational facility for students and staff in the science and environmental programs.
A stretch of about 2,000 linear feet of stream encompassing almost 20 acres of the Eagle Creek floodplain suffered from severe bank erosion, down cutting and mass wasting along several points of the steep southern bank and shorter northern banks, thus negatively affecting downstream water quality. A previous owner had logged most of the available 150 acres, and the removal of so many trees and their root systems further contributed to storm water run-off and bank erosion.
Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC), a nonprofit dedicated to preserving natural areas and working farms in Ohio, recognized the land’s value to the college and the community. WRLC started working with the college in 2009 to acquire the land and finance the stream restoration through funding provided by the Ohio EPA Department of Environmental and Financial Assistance’s Water Resource Restoration Sponsorship Program. In addition, as part of its mission WRLC holds a permanent conservation easement to protect the land in perpetuity.
“The acquisition increased the holdings of Hiram College’s field station,” says Chris Szell, director of conservation project management for WRLC. “The project added 152 acres to expand the field station, which they use for educational purposes, to about 530 acres.”
The hard work started in 2012, when Davey Resource Group, a division of the Davey Tree Expert Company, brought in heavy equipment and set to work remaking a more natural stream channel for Eagle Creek.
Ken Christensen, a senior biologist with Davey Tree, said a notable problem with the stream was that flooding and the resulting erosion pushed its channel against a steep bank that further eroded with each heavy storm event.
“Rather than dictate to the stream how it should behave, we wanted to give it some room to adjust and develop naturally,” Christensen says.
A new stream channel was designed, adjacent to the existing stream, with more meander bends in the channel that would allow the stream to create natural deposits of sand and gravel bars. The new design slowed water velocity and reduced the risk of erosion. Construction crews plugged the old channel, left it to develop into a wetland area and directed the stream into the newly created stream channel.
“We basically have two channels,” Christensen says. “So during a flood event, the old channel remains and serves to absorb some of the flow and prevent the water from rushing straight through and eroding the banks of the new channel.”
Metzinger said the work served two purposes. The stream and land restoration benefits the community by reducing the risk of downstream flooding and improving water quality. And the expanded field station supports the college’s science and education programs.
“We were the first scientific investigators in the new river when it was opened up, and that allowed our ecologists and biologists to both get baseline data of the ecology of the stream as well as conduct surveys throughout the coming years,” Metzinger says. “Classes regularly survey invertebrates, vertebrates and other biological life to see what types of organisms are moving back into the waterway. We’ll be able to determine if what we’ve done is helping or hurting the river.”
Christensen said students also visited the site during the construction phase of the restoration to talk with Davey biologists and design engineers about the work.
“Any of the science departments can come here and learn something, whether it’s about fish, macroinvertibrates, wetlands, botany or native animals,” he says. “The whole gauntlet. It’s a great natural sciences lab.”
Ursuline Repairs Tornado Damage
When a tornado tore through the campus of Ursuline College two years ago it made headlines for ripping apart the school’s gymnasium.
But the twister, confirmed as an EF-1 on a 0-to-5 scale by the National Weather Service, did more than topple bricks and mortar. Winds of more than 100 mph also uprooted trees along an unnamed stream running through campus that had suffered for years from erosion.
Corine Peugh, a project manager with Davey Resource Group, said the tornado damaged the main head wall at the top of the stream channel, which is a tributary to Pepper Creek that eventually flows into the Chagrin River and on to Lake Erie.
“They had existing issues with stream bank erosion and sedimentation, and the toppling of trees by the tornado led to further destabilization of the banks,” Peugh says.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE DAVEY TREE EXPERT COMPANY
Davey worked with Ursuline to implement a design plan for restoring the stream channel by reinforcing the main culvert and several others along the entire tributary with riprap, re-grading steeply eroded banks and replanting the flood plain with native vegetation.
Floodplain access was restored by removing dredge materials and the creation of a series of shallow bowls along the length of the stream. During flood events, stormwater can flow into these depressions and slowly drain out to lessen the potential for erosion.
In addition, trees were reinforced where either previous erosion or storm damage from the tornado had destabilized soil around their roots.
“Roots from trees and other vegetation naturally stabilize the banks,” Peugh says. “As soon as you lose those you start to lose even more stream bank. Without reinforcement, the trees would have eventually fallen and erosion would continue to impact the stream bank.”
The project also incorporated a bio-retention cell that collects run-off water from an
adjacent parking lot and filters it through plants and layers of specially formatted soil and gravel before it is channeled into the stream.
Kristen Buccier, program associate with the Chagrin River Watershed Partners, which helped obtain grant funding from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Surface Water Improvement Fund, says the bio-retention cell is performing better than expected by helping to reduce erosion and improve water quality downstream.
“All of the runoff going into the bio-retention cell has been either infiltrated by the soil or taken up by the plants in 60 percent of the rain events we’ve analyzed,” Buccier says. “So no water from the parking lot has gone into the receiving stream 60 percent of the time.”
Buccier says the cell also gives students at the college a chance to study its effects on downstream water quality.
After construction wrapped up, Ursuline asked Davey to install low-mow grass along the length of the stream channel where construction had taken place.
Peugh says the low-mow grass covers the entire length of the construction area from the retention cell all the way upstream to the primary drain culvert encompassing 0.7 acres.
“It creates a buffer along the stream that they only need to mow once or twice a year instead of weekly, a practice that contributes to erosion of the stream banks,” she says. “It reduces their maintenance costs of the project area dramatically. I think it was a really nice addition to the project.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.