The health of our nation’s streams is in jeopardy, and the culprits are things we may not even consider detrimental at first. Activities like mowing stream banks and letting cattle walk in a creek can turn these small waterways into little more than drainage ditches. Sedimentation and erosion affect the water quality of the streams and the species that live in and near the water. Essentially, these actions literally choke a variety of species, from insects to fish.
Thankfully, there are heroes on the horizon. Nonprofit organizations, as well as community groups, are teaming up with state and federal agencies to help restore streams to their natural state and teaching landowners how to preserve the ecological functions of their waterways.
Justin Laughlin is a stream restoration biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF); his work takes him to 13 counties in Southwestern Virginia. “The main purpose of my program and my work is to protect and restore endangered (aquatic) species habitat,” said Laughlin, who also works with community watershed groups. “Most restoration programs seek to do this on some level. In Virginia, we are focused on aquatic species. We are ahead of other states in that we have decided what species are at risk and which ones we want to target for protection.” Most state agencies have created a comprehensive wildlife action plan that prioritizes species in need of conservation and strategies to achieve habitat protection and recovery.
Federal agencies have also turned their focus to the streams and creeks that flow in our backyards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and various conservation departments perform restoration through programs under the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Nonprofit organizations such as soil and water conservation districts, the Virginia Stream Alliance, and the Canaan Valley Institute do similar work. Even universities have joined the effort, such as the prestigious North Carolina State University’s Stream Restoration Institute.
One such program is the DGIF’s Landowner Incentive Program (LIP), which enlists participants with waterways on their property to work with biologists to reduce erosion, increase vegetation along stream banks, and enhance in-stream habitat for aquatic species. The landowners are instructed on the best practices for improving their streams and are assisted with much of the expenses.
“Landowners usually find themselves scratching their heads when their streams or creeks just don’t look the way they used to,” said Laughlin. “ They begin to have issues with land loss and nuisance animals … they don’t know how to manage this large natural resource and are seeking help from professionals.”
The most extensive damage to stream banks comes from clearing flood plains. Cutting the vegetation all the way down to the edge of the stream may be aesthetically pleasing, but it has a negative impact on the wildlife in the water and along the stream bank. Biologists encourage landowners to allow the banks’ vegetation to grow up naturally. In cases where too much damage has occurred, biologists plant new trees and shrubs to help hold the soil in place.
Candidates for agency assistance differ for each program, but for the majority of the programs, the qualifications are simple. LIP participants must have a constantly flowing stream or water source on their property that contributes to a major river. Waterways must contain an at-risk species in need of conservation or contribute to a waterway that supports a species in need. Perhaps the biggest commitment of the contract is a willingness on the part of the landowner to establish riparian buffers or permanent vegetation along the stream banks and allow that vegetation to grow for at least ten years. The state reimburses the landowner 75 percent of the project’s cost.
LIP candidates meet with biologists such as Laughlin to determine what measures will work best for their creeks and streams. “We look at the site and decide if they qualify. They sign a contract and then we get underway with the project.”