The Cayuga County Soil and Water Conservation District is nearly finished with a new type of stream bank restoration project for an Owasco Lake tributary that has staff members excited to see the results.
At Dutch Hollow Brook, one of Owasco Lake's largest tributaries, district staff is wrapping up an innovative project to restore 350 linear feet of stream bank, with the goal of reducing sediment flow and nutrient loading into the lake.
Sediment in stream water often contains phosphorous and nitrogen, the two nutrients used as food for the cyanobacteria that form harmful algal blooms (HABs).
"We're kind of excited to see how this is going to function," project lead Jason Cuddeback said.
In most projects of its kind, the stream bank is essentially lined with stone to act as a buffer against the force of the water that would otherwise naturally carve out curves and eventually oxbow lakes from the sides of the stream.
"What Mother Nature wants to do is slow herself down," Cuddeback said, later describing the way the water bounces between the opposite walls of the stream as "almost like a pinball machine."
At Dutch Hollow, the amount of erosion was severe. When initially surveying the site for the project, district staff placed 24 inch steel posts to gauge how much stream bank was being lost.
When they returned after a year, the posts were nowhere to be found.
For this project, using a design from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, district staff uprooted 40 trees from along the bank and placed them horizontally, under the soil and a system of "lifts" designed to hold them in place, so the root systems jut out into the stream.
The goal of the design, along with several stone barriers in the stream itself that redirect the water's velocity to the center, is to redirect and slow the stream's flow away from the bank.
While the process of sediment deposition is a natural one, Cuddeback said the extreme storms that have become common in recent years have accelerated the process, necessitating projects like this.
When The Citizen was given a tour of the site with Cuddeback, the results were immediately visible.
At the first section of the project, water rushes between the two sections of stone before quickly running into the tree roots. With the water slowed, the few feet of space between each tree becomes a natural sediment deposition site.
Not only does this help reduce erosion on the stream bank, as well as the amount of sediment and nutrients that flow into the lake, but the spaces of calm water also become perfect habitats for fish, Cuddeback said.
While the fish likely appreciate it, especially given that the stream is a designated trout spawning stream, the ultimate goal of the project and others like it is to help Owasco Lake.
"It comes down to water quality," Cuddeback said. "If we can slow that process of sedimentation and dropping nutrients — maybe leading to HABs — then that's what we're looking to do."
The project is the last of eight the district has been able to undertake thanks to a $200,000 state grant obtained by state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, and Assemblyman Gary Finch, R-Springport.
Of those projects, four were stream bank revitalization projects while four others were agriculture-based.
District staff will now be moving on the other projects throughout the county, but not before finishing up at Dutch Hollow. Most of what's left involves planting new trees on the edges of the bank to replace the ones uprooted.
But, just beyond the section of stream the project worked on, Cuddeback can already see a spot that might need similar work in a few years. For now, he just has to keep an eye on it.
"Mother Nature is the ultimate decider," he said.