BERKSHIRE — In the spring of 2018, a massive bank failure on 500 feet of tributary to the Pike River in Berkshire — the result of years of undercutting — threatened to drop an estimated 453 pounds of phosphorus into Missisquoi Bay.
While restoration of that streambank is now recently complete, experts urge landowners to watch for similar problems on their own property
The failure happened on Peter and Lori Hutchins’ farm in Berkshire. The Franklin County Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCS) just happened to be working with Hutchins on another project when Peter pointed to the failure.
“I couldn’t see really watching all that dirt just kind of wash into the river. What it does is the bank cuts under a little bit and then just starts falling in. It kinda washes it all out,” says Hutchins.
Brodie Haenke is a conservation specialist with NRCS. He says after getting the Hutchins’ permission, the district invited their regional Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) river scientist out to the site. That specialist recommended an active streambank restoration project to reduce sediment and phosphorus to the Pike River.
Phosphorus is one of the nutrient pollutants found in runoff and arguably the greatest threat to clean water in Lake Champlain. According to the DEC, too much phosphorus pollution stimulates excessive growth of algae. It can turn Lake Champlain water green, and even can be toxic to pets and people.
“Almost 25% of the total phosphorus load to Lake Champlain is attributed to sediment erosion from unstable streambanks. Small stream restoration is a very important body of work Vermont needs to meet our clean water goals. This was one of those streams that needed work,” says Haenke.
According to a February 2016 report by the DEC, water quality projects implemented through state and federal funding programs and regulatory programs have prevented 62,000 pounds of phosphorus pollution from entering Lake Champlain. This represents 13% of the required reduction for the lake to meet Vermont Water Quality Standards.
The problem, says Haenke, stems from work done in the last century to change the way water moves across our landscape. Streams were buried, straightened, dredged, ditched, walled, dammed, and “cleaned up” to accommodate Vermont’s downtowns, houses, roads, railroads, lumber mills, farm fields and aesthetic preferences.
He says that it was in fact the Conservation District, Soil Conservation Service, and Army Corps of Engineers that provided the funding, engineering and machinery to do much of this work throughout the state.
“Although these alterations were made with our communities’ best interest in mind, part of the legacy of this landscape change is unstable streams that erode more and provide less habitat,” says Haenke.
With funding by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and a DEC block grant, the district hired Fitzgerald Environmental Associates and EcoSolutions.
“They created floodplains, grade slopes, strategically placed rock and widened the stream bank to prevent further excess erosion,” says Haenke. “Willow stems and conservation seed mixes were also placed along the disturbed surfaces to encourage quick revegetation.”
“They had to go through and dig to make sure there’s no [Native American] artifacts. It was at least a year once they started talking about it ... maybe a year and a half. They started the work last fall and they finished it … all they had left to do last spring was put some stones in the bottom,” says Hutchins.
Haenke says the simplest and lowest cost solution to mitigate streambank erosion is for landowners to establish a woody buffer along that waterbody.
“I encourage every landowner with eroding or unprotected rivers, streams, or ditches flowing through their property to reach out to their local conservation district, watershed group, or NRCS office to ask them about the options available to protect that waterbody,” says Haenke. “There is an array of state and federal programs available to landowners who are interested in reestablishing forests along our streams and we can help you find the program that fits your water quality goals for your property.”