A Love Song for Soil – Streambank Restoration at the Finger Lakes Museum

by Natalia Kivimaki
Director of Operations, Finger Lakes Museum

Water is a powerful force, one of the primary agents of landscape changes. The constant ebb and flow of water alters the balance of the surrounding ecosystem, with erosion presenting an environmental and economic issue. A recent streambank restoration project has helped combat erosion and improve the overall health of Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes Region.

The damaging effects of erosion include poor water quality, decreased habitats and the potential for flash flood damage. When streams are restored to their natural state, the harmful effects of erosion can be reduced, especially in vulnerable areas that have already been affected by previous flooding events. This poses the question of what can be done to restore the banks of these important ecosystems?

Sugar Creek borders the east side of the Finger Lakes Museum campus in Branchport, flows alongside the Townsend-Grady Wildlife Preserve and empties into Keuka Lake. Several organizations share the creek’s banks including the museum, Branchport/Keuka Park Fire Department and the Yates County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League. Sugar Creek is brimming with life as a local fishing stream and a habitat for spiny softshell turtles. 

After noticing the erosion taking place on Sugar Creek’s bank at a rate of a foot per year, the Finger Lakes Museum contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Environmental Conservation, Yates County Soil and Water and a civil engineer to walk through the impacted areas. One of the collaborators recommended a toe wood solution, as the design had proved successful in other New York State streambanks impacted by erosion, including Catharine Creek and Mill Creek. 

A toe wood technique is one of the more favorable methods for streambank reconstruction. This natural approach uses interlocking logs that include the root mass and 10 to 15 feet of a trunk (rootwads) of a tree to stabilize the bank; this serves as a barrier between the bank and the stream. Several rootwads are interlocked and placed on the bend of the stream, where damage is high based on the flow of water. The trunk is anchored in place using boulders and soil. The structure is then covered with natural filler materials, including native shrubs. This long-lasting approach rebuilds the streambank and its habitats as quickly as it’s put in place.

Work on the toe wood solution in Sugar Creek began in December 2022 and successfully redirected the creek to a gentler flow. It also incorporated native plantings which foster habitats that will hopefully continue to improve with time. Cornell Cooperative is preparing extensive riparian zone plantings and water quality monitoring in the area for Spring 2023, documenting the progress of the project. 

While we may not be able to take on a project of such magnitude as the Sugar Creek streambank restoration in our own backyards, there are several actions we can take to assist with streambank preservation. It is crucial to preserve natural vegetation along stream edges, such as adding logs or planting trees along the bend of the bank, to assist with the water flow. A fertilizer-free buffer strip along the edge of any stream or creek will allow for water absorption. Keeping your lawn 2 to 3 inches high will assist in keeping the soil from washing away with rainwater. 

We can all do something to improve water quality in our streams, to stop the harmful effects of erosion and to be faithful stewards of freshwater.

Other Streambank Stabilization Methods

In addition to toe wood, there are a variety of ways to stabilize a streambank against damage. One method is to line channels with concrete. This approach is effective, quick and affordable – based on the low cost of materials and the ease of use. Many cities use this method to move storm water away from developed areas, thus protecting properties and individuals. Unfortunately, everything washed into these channels is carried to the stream, increasing water pollution.

Other commonly used options are to stabilize the streambank with stone (rip rap), or to use metal cages (gabions) to hold materials in place. This method, while more preferred than using concrete, is not without its disadvantages. Lining a stream with rocks doesn’t provide a natural look or feel. Using impervious materials doesn’t allow the ground to absorb water. While this approach allows pools of water to form, those pools are temporary and ineffective in maintaining the surrounding habitat. To improve habitat stability, planners can add vegetation between the rocks and incorporate natural materials. This will set the plan in place for improvement as well as future stability.

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