A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The Licking River: Stream restoration like ‘making sausage;’ take a second look

Part seven of a seven part series

The Licking River begins with a whimper on its 300-mile plus journey north from headwaters in the mountains of Kentucky to its crescendo as it converges with the Ohio River at metro Cincinnati. Veteran reporter Andy Mead undertook his journey in an aluminum canoe, braving the elements on and off over more than a year, to experience himself the good, the bad, the ugly and the spectacular of a river that runs through nearly every culture, geography, economy, environment and society known to its home state. Along the way he talked to dozens of experts – from ecologists, scientists and environmentalists to historians, farmers and fisherman – and met dozens of real Kentuckians whose lives are entwined with the river. Thanks to support from the Northern Kentucky University Ecological Stewardship Institute, the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism, the UK Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and KyForward.com for making possible the story of this incredible river.

By Andy Mead
KyCPSJ Senior Reporting Fellow

EDGEWOOD – The people working in a small Kenton County stream were from Northern Kentucky University’s Center for Environmental Restoration, but what they were doing looked for all the world like environmental destruction.

The stream had been pushed to one side. A wide area once covered with bushes and trees had been cleared to bare ground. Some large trees had been knocked down, their exposed roots sticking into the air. The babbling of the brook was drowned in the roar of heavy equipment.

Scott Fennell, the center’s director, surveyed the mess and said that ugliness is often necessary to make a damaged stream healthy again. “It’s kind of like sausage-making,” he said.

Scott Fennell (Photo from NKU Ecological Stewardship Institute)

Scott Fennell (Photo from NKU Ecological Stewardship Institute)

That was the fall of 2013. A year later, the stream, Bullock Pen, was on its way back to looking like a stream should.

Native plants were establishing a foothold in spots where the invasive Asian bush honeysuckle had been pulled out. The most noticeable change: Several kinds of natural and artificial structures now hug the banks to make them more stable. As nature regains the upper hand in the coming years, Fennell said, the creek will look less and less like it was torn apart and put back together.

The Center for Environmental Restoration is a non-profit arm of NKU. Its main focus is repairing creeks using money paid by developers, government agencies (such as the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet) and others who damage or destroy creeks.

The money comes through what is called an “In-lieu Fee Mitigation Program,” which was mandated by the federal Clean Water Act.

The center is responsible for restoration efforts in nine Northern Kentucky counties: Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Carroll, Gallatin, Grant, Pendleton, Bracken and Mason.

Since its creation in 1999, the center has received more than $28 million through the fee mitigation program. A lot of its funding comes from the Kentucky Transportation Department, Fennell said. It has $8 million in hand, all allocated toward specific projects.

The largest in-lieu payment was $13 million from Kentucky Utilities, which created a coal ash landfill that filled a stream valley at its Ghent Generating Station in Carroll County.

The center now has 3,300 acres under conservation easement, which means they are permanently protected. It has restored 61 miles of streams and 15 acres of wetlands. Most of the streams are short stretches of headwaters, Fennell said, places that are more likely to be homes to salamanders than fish.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is responsible for restoration work in the rest of the state. That program has been operating since 2002. Last year’s budget called for spending $1 million on operating expenses and up to $20 million on mitigation projects, said Mike Hardin, the department’s assistant director of fisheries.

“In most of our projects, you can’t even tell we’ve been there.”
— Scott Fennell, director of Northern Kentucky University’s Center for Environmental Restoration

For the Licking River outside of the area for which NKU is responsible, Hardin said, about $10 million has been spent. The funds were designated for 14 miles of stream, including 4.25 miles in three projects that are already completed and are being monitored, and the rest in two projects that are under way.

The Bullock Pen project the NKU center worked on cost $393,000, Fennell said.

Bullock Pen is near the city of Edgewood. Its waters flow into Doe Run Lake and eventually into Banklick Creek and the Licking River. Doe Run is a pretty 30-acre impoundment that is a popular spot for fishing, walking dogs and picnics.

The reason the creek needed restoration work was intense urban and suburban development. You can see it on the ridge tops around Bullock Pen, which are crowded cheek by jowl with houses.

Rain that used to soak into the ground now hits rooftops, driveways and streets before rushing into the stream. That eroded the banks, especially at a place where the stream makes a sharp U-turn.

Another problem was an unnamed tributary that enters Bullock Pen at the U-turn. The extra runoff caused the tributary to cut farther back into the hillsides, a problem known as “head-cutting.”

The erosion was so bad that sections of the steep hillsides fell away. In several places the landslides took trees with them. Where landslides had reached high enough, parts of people’s backyards fell away.

The landslides drew the attention of the NKU center, Fennell said. “We are all about the water quality and habitat,” he said. “Our money isn’t necessarily to protect homes, but that’s kind of a side benefit.”

The solution: Install a mix of deflectors along Bullock Pen to keep the creek in its channel and use enormous rocks in the tributary to make a stepped-down waterfall that won’t wash away.

Some of the deflectors also are large rocks. Some are gabion baskets, which are large wire baskets filled with smaller rocks or concrete. In some places the trees that were pushed down were bolted into bedrock so their trunks and roots will help hold the soil. In other places concrete walls jut toward the creek.

Hale Contracting of Williamstown was hired for the project’s heavy lifting. Company owner Dean Stith estimated that 1,000 tons of rock were brought in to add to native rock at the site. Some of the larger pieces weighed four or five tons.

“We use big rocks,” Stith said. He said the work is expensive and causes a lot of disruption before the reconstruction can begin “so you don’t want to do it twice.”

The Center for Environmental Restoration also hired NKU students to do some of the work. “It gives them professional experience and income,” Fennell said.

David Koenig, a fifth-year environmental science senior, was spreading native plant seeds and straw. His goal in life, he said, is to get a job working in the outdoors instead of in an office.

“I do a lot of outdoor activities, so it’s good to be out here, restoring after some of the damage we’ve done,” he said.

Working nearby was Tara Sturgill, who graduated in 2011 with degrees in environmental science and geology. She helped write the mitigation plan for the site. “I’m normally in the office, but it’s nice to be out here,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve been out since I wrote the plan.”

A year after the 2013 work that made the stream look like a mess, Fennell returned and liked what he saw. Doe Run Lake will be clearer because of the project, he said. Bullock Pen will be hospitable to aquatic life. And the hillsides should stop slipping away.

“To me the most satisfying part is to come back next year, and the next year and the next and see how it is progressing towards more of a natural appearance and function,” Fennell said. “In most of our projects, you can’t even tell we’ve been there.”

Studying the stream

Kristy Hopfensperger is an associate professor and director of the Environmental Science Program at Northern Kentucky University. Her areas of concentration are wetland ecology, biogeochemistry and ecosystem ecology and plant ecology. Her current research includes habitat restoration, nutrient cycling, greenhouse gas emission and invasive species.

She studies water quality in the Licking River with her class for non-science majors on protecting water resources.

Three Mile Creek drains the NKU, as well as commercial and residential areas and a lot of parking lots, creating the perfect classroom for Hopfensperger who has her students collecting macro invertebrates or nutrients in the water or E. Coli. “I teach this class every fall so we can start looking at how it differs from year to year.”

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Andy Mead
Senior Reporting Fellow

Andy Mead retired from the Lexington Herald-Leader after 34 years, where he distinguished himself as a reporter, with a particular interest in the environment. He also worked at the Boca Raton News for four years before coming to Lexington. He grew up in Savannah, Ga. and graduated with a master’s degree in history from Florida Atlantic University. He is a widower, living in Lexington, and has twins who are college students. As Senior Reporting Fellow for KyCPSJ on the Licking River project, he worked closely with NKU’s Ecological Sustainability Institute and engaged with faculty and students at NKU as a guest speaker and visiting professional-in-residence.

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One Comment

  1. J Tucker says:

    Great story!

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