The science of stream restoration

NY Times science has a good article on the science of stream restoration. Reading this I couldn’t help but think of The Onondaga Creek Conceptual Revitalization Plan. The best approach for stream restoration “is to create landforms and water flows that streams can maintain naturally. But how you translate that into action” is the main problem.  It easy to see how restoration might work in rural settings, but Onondaga creek is split into an urban and a rural/suburban component of roughly equal size.  Its certainly easier to see how how urbanization altered a waterway than to find ways of “fixing” damage that might have been caused.  Here is an interesting link to the history of Onondaga Creek Channelization (pdf) showing the extent to which the creek has been artificially altered, natural meanders straightened, etc. It unlikely (but not out of the realm of possibility) that these natural meanders would be restored in the urban environment; but other water management solutions are more likely.

Restoring the health of the waterway also means buffering the urban inputs into the creek. Now that the decision has been made to to scrap plans for a downtown sewage treatment plant, alternative means of storm water management on the west side are being discussed. Sunday’s Post-Standard has an article by John Mariani that details these “first steps toward creating a green solution to Onondaga Lake’s sewage issues” using rain gardens, trees, and similar means:

Onondaga County plants seeds for green solution to lake pollution

by John Mariani
Sunday June 22, 2008

The first steps toward creating a green solution to Onondaga Lake’s sewage issues are being taken on parallel paths in downtown Syracuse committee rooms and on the city’s Near West Side.
A half-dozen committees are meeting to explore ways to implement Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney’s decision to scrap plans for a downtown sewage treatment plant and instead use trees, gardens and similar means to keep storm water from flushing sewage into the lake.
The first fruit of their labors was recently unveiled to the county Legislature—a proposal to use $75,000 in state funds, $46,600 in county cash and nearly $49,000 in materials and services to reforest and plant rain gardens in the Near West Side. The neighborhood sits in the zone that would have been served by the Clinton Street sewage treatment facility.
The state grant through the Department of Environmental Conservation is the first of many that county officials hope to tap into over the next few years, said Jean Smiley, the county’s physical services administrator.
“We’re hoping to utilize those funds to plant green infrastructure and also measure it and study it, so we have a good idea of how much of it can be placed, where, to reduce the storm water runoff issues,” Smiley said.
The application for a state Urban and Community Forestry Grant calls for planting 400 trees. Some would eventually shade Near West Side streets. Others, more thickly planted, would turn vacant city-owned lots into miniature forests, said Brian Liberti, Syracuse’s city arborist and one of many collaborators working on the project.
The application also proposes planting two demonstration rain gardens on public land in the neighborhood.
One garden would be designed using storm water management guidelines put out by DEC. The other would be planted using a “how-to” manual for homeowners from the University of Wisconsin.
Both gardens would serve three roles, the application says: absorb excess storm water; recycle that water to grow the garden; and serve as a classroom where residents can learn how to install their own rain gardens.
“Outreach and education are very, very important,” said Sue Miller, deputy director of the Lake Improvement Project, as she presented the application to the Legislature’s Environmental Protection Committee. “There is no sense in planting a bunch of trees or rain gardens that aren’t getting supported.”
“I think this is a great idea,” Legislator James Rhinehart, R-Skaneateles, told Miller. Yawning gaps between trees become apparent driving through the city, he said. “We should be constantly planting trees.”
Trees take in carbon dioxide, exhale oxygen and save energy by shading homes, Liberti said. More significantly for the Onondaga Lake cleanup, they suck up rainwater.
Diverting runoff from curbsides to street trees, and creating forested lots that will absorb rainfall, are two strategies to reduce the volume of water entering the storm sewer system.
In the past, severe storms have overwhelmed the system, resulting in raw sewage pouring into Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake. If more storm water can be kept out of the system, the reasoning goes, smaller and fewer facilities will be required to treat the combined storm water and sewage.
Miller, Liberti and Amy Samuels, natural resource team coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Onondaga County, developed the forestry grant application after county officials approached city counterparts with the idea, Liberti said.
“For our purposes it serves almost the entire Near West Side,” Liberti said. The tree stock would range from young bare-root and containerized trees that volunteers and neighbors can plant, to more mature specimens with burlap-wrapped root balls that require professional planting. Liberti has drawn up a list of 30 varieties he said is diverse enough to prevent the entire planting from being wiped out by a tree disease.
Getting the public to buy into green sewage-treatment technologies is deemed so important that Education and Outreach is the name and task of one of the committees working on the green initiative.
The others include Green Infrastructure, exploring ways of keeping runoff out of the sewage stream; Gray Infrastructure, looking at industrial methods of dealing with remaining combined sewage; Finance; and Legal.
Arching over all is a Policy Committee, comprising representatives of the county, DEC and Atlantic States Legal Foundation, all parties in the Amended Consent Judgment that ordered the county to stop sewage from fouling Onondaga Lake. Onondaga Nation representatives also have seats.
The committees are working on processes and procedures for implementing green alternatives to industrial-type “gray” sewage treatment technologies, said Samuel Sage, president of Atlantic States and chairman of the Green Infrastructure group.
Also participating besides the judgment parties and the nation are the city of Syracuse, Syracuse University, Cornell Cooperative Extension and the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
Coordination is one of the goals, Smiley said.
Committees will be working with the Near Westside Initiative, a nonprofit economic development partnership led by SU, and city officials to identify planting sites. They also will mesh with another SU project, the Connective Corridor, that would link the campus with downtown, Smiley said.
Planners also have to take into account Syracuse’s master plan to ensure the city and county both benefit from proposed changes, she said.
“Where we can, we’re looking to maximize projects that are already going on,” Smiley said.
Timing is essential. The judgment parties must return to federal court in October with a new long-term plan to control sewage flow into the lake, Sage said.
Meanwhile, state and federal agencies that can provide money to pay for implementing green plans have deadlines of their own. So while the committees pursue the planning path, Sage said, they also must go up the financing trail.
“You can’t just do things in a vacuum,” Sage said.
Next month, DEC is expected to seek proposals for spending $35 million in new grant funds and Smiley said she expects to apply.
“We’re really looking at trying to figure out exactly what areas and what types of green infrastructure that we can place so that we’re ready when those grant opportunities come out to apply for them,” she said.

(I’ve reprinted the entire article below in case someone wants to refer back to it beyond the 30 days allotted by the Post-Standard. So sue me.)

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2 Responses to The science of stream restoration

  1. Green Earth says:

    I found this post really interesting, I will be reading more about the science of stream restoration, thanks.

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