Streams On The Move

Michelle Wood, District Program Administrator

I was up at first light this morning, intent on getting in a nice walk before getting to work early, as I had many items on the “to-do” list (including writing this article). I paused to replant the hostas the raccoons had dug up overnight (why must they be destructive?) and walked purposefully down the driveway to burn off a few calories from the irresistible fry pie my colleague brought in to work yesterday. But in only a short distance, the siren song of the stream across the road lured me over, and soon I was lost, the walk forgotten.

Streams have always fascinated me. As a kid, I played for hours in the little stream behind our house. I would catch minnows, frogs, and crawfish all day long. There was a culvert that harbored gigantic (at least to me) water snakes. I would sneak up to the edge and peek over to see them piled up on the rocks, a mixture of horror and captivation, and throw pebbles at them to make them scatter. Obviously, this was back in the day when we made our own entertainment. I don’t think I’ve ever walked over a bridge or culvert without peering into the stream beneath (my husband is the same way, maybe that’s why we both work for soil and water conservation districts). Probably my most disturbing find was a dead chipmunk being eaten by several crayfish, which leads to all sorts of questions and speculation.

But I digress—the stream across the road is changing rapidly. Every time it rains, I can see a difference. Last week we received a localized deluge of about two inches of rain in 30 minutes. The tranquil little stream was a raging torrent of chocolate milk brown water churning and roiling against the banks. We are in a valley, and the stream is quickly undercutting. The stream banks are wooded, but steep. The tree roots that used to hold the soil in place are getting more and more exposed, to the point that at least a foot of root layer is exposed. A large maple fell during the last downpour, exposing even more streambank, which is bearing the brunt of the stream velocity. The utility lines are threatened by falling trees, not to mention passersby who may be travelling the road should one fall across.

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But the most alarming section is the one supporting our neighbors’ driveway. Totally devoid of all vegetation—the topsoil has eroded away taking the plants with it—nothing will grow in the subsoil, so the 15-20’ tall bank is totally exposed. Soil layers slough off each time it rains from water flowing from above and over the bank, as well as from the undercutting stream. A remarkable amount of sediment has slumped into the creek, choking it off and narrowing the channel down, forcing it out of bank into the other side that was stable. At some point, the whole bank is just going to calve off like a glacier, and they will be faced with extensive—and expensive—repairs to stabilize that streambank, or find another route for their driveway.

This little stream is not unique, and this story is playing out everywhere in Holmes County and beyond. Changing land use, frequent intense storms, and increased precipitation are working together to change our landscape and cause problems for landowners, roads, and utilities at a cost to all of us.

Unfortunately, there’s not an easy solution. Landowners need to be aware that they are responsible for repairs, even if it’s occurring through no fault of their own. Water does not care how much your driveway cost to install or maintain. It doesn’t care that you thought your culvert was sized correctly but now can’t handle the increased flow. My best advice is to be proactive when constructing a new home or driveway, to consider stream systems and water runoff, and plan accordingly. Our office is happy to assist in these situations. We can also offer some advice regarding stream erosion issues, but many times the job requires hiring an engineer or contractor at the landowners’ expense. It’s always easier to be proactive than reactive. I understand that’s not helpful for existing situations. There are some resources available that may be useful for landowners.

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Although a bit dated, the ODNR Stream Management Guides are still relevant. They are not easily found online for some reason, but our friends at Warren SWCD have them on their website, and we have copies in our office as well. You can link to the guides here: Warren Soil and Water Stream Management Guide

Cuyahoga SWCD has developed Watershed Friendly Stream Maintenance that is geared for communities, but has good information for landowners as well, especially permits that may be required and which agency to contact. We can provide copies in our office or it can be found online at this link: Cuyahoga Soil and Water Stream Maintenance

Contact Holmes SWCD at 330-674-SWCD, see our website at HolmesSWCD.com, or email holmes.swcd@gmail for more information.

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Michelle Wood, District Program Administrator

Michelle Wood oversees the day to day operations of the district and the diverse activities offered to promote clean water and healthy soil. With a lifelong passion for the outdoors and a background in communications, she appreciates the conservation district grassroots model which enables the local board and staff to create programs that meet the conservation needs of Holmes County. Michelle is a member of several state and national committees. Contact Michelle at 330-674-2811 or at mwood@co.holmes.oh.us