Nature knows best, it turns out, so West Virginia’s stream restorationists work to reverse human intervention and make waterways healthy again.
Water cuts its own path. It follows the lay of the land, sure, and it’s guided by the plants and rocks that give way or resist its influence. But culvert a river to build a bridge or let pastured cows trample in and out, and it can start eroding its banks in ways that are ugly and hard to stop.
Erosion also disrupts the food chain. Stream-bottom creatures prefer a rocky streambed, so a muddy bed means fewer fish—and fewer frogs, salamanders, and even birds. Where that happens, nature becomes an unnatural kind of quiet.
“What folks want to see now is ecosystem processes restored,” says Ryan Gaujot, president and principal geologist at Green Rivers of Thomas, which restores streams and wetlands. “A lot of that starts in the stream channel.”
Engineering a stream channel back to health takes skill. The conventional fix for erosion has been to line the bank with rock, but water doesn’t always take the hint. “You’ve seen where the State Road keeps dumping rock in the same spot on a creek bank,” says Chris White, president and co-owner of Appalachian Stream Restoration of Danville. “Or a whole stream channel will just be rocked, and they keep coming back and putting up gabion baskets”—those wire crates that are filled with the large, loose stone called riprap. “That tells you the creek isn’t following its natural pattern, profile, and dimensions.”
Stream restoration that looks natural and lasts is part science, as White’s comment hints, and part art. And it’s going on all around us.
Calming a restless creek
The Preston County headwaters of the Cheat River wind across upland plateaus. The area was once forested, and native trout thrived in its cool waters. But aggressive grazing and row cropping damaged the creeks and their floodplains in some spots. Even where agriculture has retreated, the waterways haven’t all recovered.
In 2015, a private fishing club hired Green Rivers to help out with a creek on its Preston County property. “There was a bare floodplain along one section of the creek, a previously cleared field that never could get any vegetation established, and there just wasn’t any stream stability or any habitat,” Gaujot says. “The stream had put a big twist in the channel and it was eroding downstream. The bend was getting tighter and tighter, and the bank was getting taller and taller, and they didn’t know how to stop it.”
The way to stop it is to re-create a natural sequence of riffles and pools. Green Rivers engineers installed about 20 structures in a third-of-a-mile stretch of the creek to do just that. They created “cross vanes” made of wood and rock to keep the main flow in the center of the channel—that reduces stress on the bank and encourages formation of a riffle upstream and a pool downstream. They also secured tree root wads at the toes, or bases, of the banks, within the channel. The toe wood adds stream bank protection as well as habitat. “So you build something that looks like the natural river, as opposed to traditional fixes where they just pile stuff up to armor the stream bank,” Gaujot says, “and then it also functions like a river.”
When the in-stream engineering was finished, Green Rivers immediately revegetated the banks—an essential part of a stream restoration project. “We place sod mats, and we reseed and mulch. We also go in with live stakes and containerized plantings,” Gaujot says. “That helps with stream stability, to reduce the bank erosion.”
Almost two years later, in mid-2017, the engineered reach is functioning stably. Downstream segments are likely seeing benefits, too: less excess sediment, more oxygen for stream life. Green Rivers will monitor the recovery for five years. The fishing club is happy with the results and has hired the company to restore a section of similar length farther downstream.
Most often, Green Rivers is hired by energy businesses or developers to offset or minimize their damage to waterbodies in compliance with state requirements. This project—“not because of flooding or water quality or industry impacts but for the fish”—was refreshing, Gaujot says.
Letting the West Fork flow free
Stream restoration isn’t always about erosion.
A century ago, to secure its drinking water supply, the Clarksburg Water Board (CWB) built a series of low dams on the West Fork of the Monongahela River: the Hartland Dam right in town, and the Two Lick, Highland, and West Milford dams upriver.
But as locals turned to the river for recreation, the low-head dams became hazards. Boaters headed downriver sometimes couldn’t even see the dams, and anything that goes over one gets caught in the churn at the bottom. “They’re called drowning machines,” says Todd Miller, deputy director of Canaan Valley Institute (CVI) in Davis, which does stream and wetland restoration. “I think about a dozen people have drowned on the dams.”
After trying a solution earlier this century that didn’t improve public safety, the CWB needed new options. It asked the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to do an assessment. Only the Hartland Dam among the four was still needed for water supply, the agencies noted in their 2010 report: The huge Stonewall Jackson Dam, 40 miles upriver, has ensured since 1990 that the river never runs dry. Because of their conservation missions, the agencies also looked at mussels, which filter a lot of water and serve as food for otters and other river creatures. Of 25 species ever documented in the river, two were already endangered—the clubshell and northern riffleshell—and two others were proposed for listing. So for both public safety and habitat improvement, the agencies recommended removing the upper three dams.
CVI coordinated design and construction of the 2016 project, an unusual one in the state. “Seventy-two dams were removed in 2016, in 21 states,” Miller says. “We were just among the first to do it in West Virginia. That probably made all of us extra cautious.”
The pool above each concrete dam was several miles long and six to 10 feet deep, and that water had to be released gradually. CVI’s subcontractors started with the uppermost dam and used a process called “notching,” removing up to a foot of dam height each day. “We used a large excavator but, instead of a bucket on the front end, it had a hammer that looks like a big steel driver,” Miller explains. “It hammers bup-bup-bup-bup-bup into the concrete and breaks off chunks little by little.” Another machine swapped in from time to time to build the refuse up into a pad the excavator could perch on as it worked its way across. “And then, as the water level dropped, we had folks from USFWS and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) and a private West Virginia firm called AllStar Ecology, and they rescued any stranded mussels and relocated them to suitable habitat.”
Each dam was about a three-week project, so the full project took much of the summer of 2016. It reconnected almost 500 miles of stream habitat, improving conditions for species like mussels that need flowing water and muskellunge that spawn in cool tributaries but live in warmer waters. Some locals miss the series of deeper pools, Miller acknowledges. But others like the ability to canoe or kayak right through where the dams used to be. People tell him the fishing is as good as it ever was—maybe better.
A side benefit was the chance to clean up the West Fork upstream of Clarksburg’s water intake. The USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program organized seven volunteer cleanups to collect exposed trash, and the state Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) hauled it away. That volunteer–nonprofit–for profit–state–federal collaboration collected 54,000 pounds of garbage and hundreds of tires. “I’ve heard that the CWB is keeping track of the costs of purifying the water as they get it ready for drinking,” Miller says. “It’s going to be interesting to see if that cost changes.”
In a follow-up project, CVI is working with the USFWS on a modification to the Hartland Dam that would improve both habitat and recreational use. “The West Fork is a designated water trail as of 2015, thanks to the Guardians of the West Fork and the National Park Service, and we’d like to support that,” Miller says. The design would allow for fish passage and either boat passage or portage, and he hopes the work will be done in 2018.
Restoring wetlands to offset disturbances
In the wide creek valleys of the far Northern Panhandle, farmers long ago straightened the winding North, Middle, and South forks of Tomlinson Run to make more room for agriculture. That completely changed the valleys.
Streams on flat land don’t naturally flow straight, Miller says—they meander. “When streams are straightened, they get steeper. Slope increases and velocity increases, so they often erode through the soils and develop into gullies—cut down deep into their banks.” That has other consequences, too. Winding streams in flat valleys flow shallow, for example, and they’re bounded by wetlands; when a stream is straightened and cuts a deep channel, the water table drops and the wetlands dry up.
Managing the forks of Tomlinson Run now as part of the Hillcrest Wildlife Management Area, the WVDNR had an interest in returning the streams to their natural state. “It was a great opportunity to restore the small meandering channels that would have been there and, at the same time, raise that water table back up and restore a whole bunch of wetland habitat,” Miller says.
The work was conducted in 2016 as part of the WVDEP’s In Lieu Fee stream and wetland mitigation program. The In Lieu Fee program collects money from industry and developers who disturb streams and wetlands and directs it toward offsetting restorations nearby.
CVI designed the project. It partnered with Appalachian Stream Restoration (ASR) for the construction, and that turned out to be a high-tech venture. “We’d invested somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000 to outfit our excavators—we were the first in the whole country to use the Topcon Robotic Total Station in stream restoration,” ASR’s White says. That awkwardly named piece of technology translates design to precision excavation. “You have a computer inside the machinery where you’ve downloaded the design. The computer tells you where your bucket is and how far down you have to dig, so you build exactly what the engineer designed. No mistakes. We’re within three-quarters of an inch on a 20-ton machine that’s got a 4-foot bucket on it.”
The designed restoration cut back and forth across the deep channels to create a meander that’s better suited to the flat topography, filling in the depths with excavated material. Rather than relying on boulders and logs, this project used “constructed riffles”: built-up gravel bars that look like naturally formed stream features. “High, fast flows will spill out onto the floodplain, and the energy of the flow in the channel is dissipated because we have these robust riffles built of gravel along with deep pools that allow the water to slow down,” Miller says. “It’s a slightly less structural approach.”
The project restored a mile of stream on each of the three forks of Tomlinson Run, along with about 15 acres of wetland. “We’re seeing a lot of aquatic insects in the channel, which is a good sign of the food chain recovering,” Miller says a year later. “And we’re seeing a lot of wet areas around the channel, so it’s looking really good.” They’ll monitor the project for five years.
Jobs AND environment
Stream restorationists are making a positive difference, Gaujot says. “We’re making hydrologic connections and taking away fish blockages and allowing benthics (stream-bottom life) to move back into areas.” That improves quality of life for West Virginians and supports tourism, all while boosting water quality for downstream uses.
Projects like these also employ West Virginians. The Tomlinson Run project, for example, cost about $100,000 in design and permitting and $1.2 million for construction and planting. “Almost all of this went to pay in-state salaries, food and lodging, supply costs, et cetera for us and our subcontractors,” Miller says, “so the funding really supported people in West Virginia. The economic benefits of this project and restoration work in general are pretty significant.”