Back on Course
Stream Institute Restores Streams, Habitats
by Kevin Rayburn
When humans meet streams, streams get altered. Since America’s earliest days, streams have borne the brunt of human impact. They have been diverted or filled-in for farming, roadwork and development, leading to pollution and ecological loss. What humans tried to improve, they are now trying to correct.
Stream restoration is a recent concept. Pioneering that field is Art Parola, professor of civil and environmental engineering in U of L’s Speed School of Engineering.
Parola directs the Stream Institute at UofL, which partners with federal, state and local agencies and community organizations to turn Kentucky’s damaged waterways back into healthy ones.
During the past decade, Parola and his team of research assistants and student engineers have restored miles of streams to states they haven’t been in—in some cases—for centuries.
“Most of the streams in Kentucky have been modified in some way and in many the habitat is poor as a result,” Parola says.
It can take years to restore even small sections of a stream and requires a multidisciplinary approach. Biologists from UofL and elsewhere monitor the ecological “comeback” of streams long after Parola’s engineers have done their work. And the engineers monitor it too.
“We work with biologists and ecologists to determine what habitat will evolve there and how well it can sustain itself,” Parola says.
“At all of the sites we’ve done, biologists have found a dramatic increase in species diversity. Fish begin thriving almost immediately.
“This is really a new type of research procedure,” Parola says. “Each time we do a new stream we learn more and improve our methods.”
To restore a stream, Parola’s engineering team surveys the area to figure out the stream’s original course. Assessments and design work can take up to a year to complete.
Next, they design the new stream with computer software. Everything from the stream’s course to the kind of vegetation slated for planting along the bank is factored in. Construction companies then move the earth and shape the design. Native vegetation and wildlife are restored.
The team includes Speed School research engineers Bill Vesely and Benjamin Mater and civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. student Jeong Park.
Project partners have included the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The stream institute was founded in 2004 with an EPA grant secured with the assistance of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Restoration projects undertaken by the institute have included:
The team designed the restoration of more than 3,000 feet of Wilson Creek in the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Bullitt County, Ky. The project was completed in 2004. The creek was moved away from a hillside back to the middle of a valley in its original curved course. Wetlands, greater species diversity and other original features were restored.
The institute designed the restoration of more than 6,000 feet of Obion Creek in western Kentucky. The project was completed in 2004. The improvement fixed several problems arising from 1930s-era alteration of the stream that led to debris jams, flooding, dying timber and more.
Stonecoal Branch and Slabcamp Creek Watershed
The team recently completed the first phase of this restoration, next to the Licking River in Eastern Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest. Another phase will begin in a few months.
Mill Branch Stream
The institute and partners recently helped complete work on this small headwater tributary of Stinking Creek in Knox County in southeast Kentucky. They restored the habitat of a rare and threatened small fish species, Blackside Dace, found in only 28 streams in the state.
Dix River Flood Plain
Parola’s team is applying what it has learned in single stream projects to a larger river floodplain. It has designed the restoration of more than 60 acres of wetlands and 10,000 feet of tributaries of the Dix River near Crab Orchard, Ky, in the eastern part of the state. The project has been under way for two years with construction slated for completion in February 2009. The intent is to remedy damage to river tributary channels and poor drainage of adjacent wetlands and improve habitat diversity among other things.
The team has done preliminary assessments in advance of restoring 4,000 feet of this stream next to Wilson Creek in Bernheim Forest.