Restoring Our Streams


February 27, 2017

The final product of a successful stream restoration project on Glade Creek. These native species will stabilize the stream bank and resist floods. (Photos courtesy of Owen Carson)

When our ancestors began to settle these mountains they had a lot of work to do. Establishing a homestead meant clearing trees wider than cars, blasting and hauling away tons of rock to make pastures and moving streams and rivers to maximize productive farmland. All of this was done without the help of modern technology – crosscuts felled the poplars, horses hauled the stone, and DuPont dynamite blasted new channels for ancient rivers. All of this was done in the name of progress, and slowly but surely our nation was erected.

Flash forward past the Model T, to the time when the modernization of vehicles began to allow Americans to travel across the country in only a short time. Networks of roads were established, driving a need for more blasting of rock and more straightening of streams. Wetlands were also on the hit list – it's hard to drive through a swamp! So, we notched and drained them, or when we couldn't, filled them with enough material to create stability. Human progress was moving right along but it was doing so at the expense of the environment.

At a certain point in history there was a collective realization that putting the cart (or car) before the horse was leading to some pretty negative outcomes in our natural world. Remember hearing about how you could light the French Broad River on fire from all of the oil making its way into the channel? For too long we had put ourselves first, and our government recognized it. In 1972, a bill was introduced and ultimately passed (even after a President Nixon veto) establishing protective and remediative efforts to maintain and improve our national water quality. The Clean Water Act (CWA) mandated, among other things, that there shall be no net loss of streams or wetlands in the U.S. Simply applied, if a road or other development was being built that necessitated a stream or wetland being impacted, then the developing agency would have to mitigate (financially) for that loss. This act is the basis for stream and wetland restoration in the U.S.

Over time, individual states developed their own mitigation programs to address the degradation of streams and wetlands within their boundaries. North Carolina was experiencing incredible development pressure by the 1990s, much of which was being created or intensified by the inability to efficiently mitigate for unavoidable environmental impacts. The state came together in 2003 to develop its own mitigation oversight arm, the Ecosystem Enhancement Program (EEP). The EEP worked hand-in-hand with the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the private development community to identify potential impacts to streams and wetlands, make efforts to minimize or avoid them, and to implement a mitigation scheme to account for impacts and, ultimately pay, for restoration projects. Now, when the DOT wants to build a road in the French Broad Watershed, proposed impacts to streams and wetlands must be mitigated for within that same watershed, generally in a stream system that is impaired and can be improved - projects addressing impacted streams are called restorations.

Restoration is defined as – "an act of restoring or the condition of being restored: such as: a bringing back to a former position or condition; a restoring to an unimpaired or improved condition; something that is restored; a representation or reconstruction of the original form..." The Merriam Webster definition truly addresses the aspects of restoration as they apply to streams and wetlands. Remember how settlers straightened and moved streams to make the most of their land? Restoration seeks to bring streams back to their original location in the landscape, where their natural functions were optimal. Stream designers want to mimic a natural condition, which often is tied to the valley type within which a stream lies: a creek flowing out of a steep, rocky valley is going to naturally differ in terms of size, energy, and sinuosity from a river that cuts across flat, broad bottomlands, so engineers would want to design those two differently. The second part of the definition speaks to original condition, which is more difficult to assess than location because of the myriad changes the stream could've undergone over time. It's easy to look at historic aerial images to see where a stream used to flow, but not as simple to analyze how well it was functioning, so we use reference streams those that appear to be unaffected (or nearly so) by human processes, as a comparison for restoration projects. The idea is that conditions within the unimpacted stream should be used as a goal condition for the restored stream: the pattern and profile, the vegetation surrounding the stream, the size and type of material that it will carry, the in-stream fauna (both micro and macro). Successfully restored streams will begin to mimic their reference reaches within about 10 years.

Transylvania County contains several restoration projects, most of which are functioning properly (or nearly so). If you get the chance, take a walk down at Brevard College's new track, have a look to the south and you'll see one of Brevard's first stream restoration projects, the King's Creek Restoration. I was still attending the school when the project was implemented. In fact, our environmental studies class got to experience the project go into the ground. The stream had been straightened throughout its length across the college, creating high velocities resulting in significant bank instability and massive erosion, then deposition of the eroded sediment into the French Broad.

By returning a stream to its natural contours, it slows the water flow down, resulting in less erosion, better habitat and cleaner water for everyone.

Engineers redesigned the stream to allow it access to its floodplain and dissipate energy, incorporated historic, natural sinuosity that also slows the flow of water during floods, added several vernal pool features to the floodplain to allow for flood storage and to function as wetland ecosystems, and replanted the riparian buffer with native trees, shrubs and herbaceous species. Fast forward 11 years and it looks pretty amazing – native trout swim the reach, an abundance of migratory birds and waterfowl nest and forage in the scrubby meadows, and, most importantly, recent BC student studies have shown that hellbender salamanders, one of WNC's most iconic amphibians, are beginning to spawn in the restored channel where they were not identified before! Talk about a success.

In light of the successes of stream restoration, I sure am glad that our government moved to protect clean water. Yes, we need to develop infrastructure to support our population, and yes, we need roads to travel. But we need to be smart in meeting our needs! The Clean Water Act set the stage for the conservation of future generations' water and resources, thus we have a responsibility to continue forward, pushing for protection of unimpacted resources (such as headwater forests) and restoration of degraded ecosystems. We need to learn from history, from our ancestors who labored to create a world for themselves that they thought would be sustainable. We should use science to guide our development practices, so that they are always improving, always seeking to minimize damage to our environment. That is true progress.


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