Story by Susan Blair, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District
Seeing ducks and turtles on any river’s shoreline is hardly unusual, but for the Buffalo River this was not always the case. High temperatures, extremely low oxygen levels, and stagnant flows made the river biologically dead for more than 40 years.
In order to restore aquatic habitat along 2,412 linear feet of the Buffalo River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District has implemented multiple projects, with support from the Environmental Protection Agency and many other stakeholders. These projects relied primarily on natural and nature-based features, which are landscape features that provide engineering functions while producing environmental and social benefits.
The work was part of the Buffalo River AOC Habitat Restoration Project, funded by the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, that revitalized approximately two miles of the river’s shoreline at eight excessively degraded sites. These habitat restoration efforts will contribute to the delisting of the Buffalo River AOC Beneficial Use Impairment goal of 2022.
The Buffalo District established aquatic habitat at three sites within the Buffalo River adjacent to the following parcels 1 South Street, 70 Katherine Street, and 301 Ohio Street. This aquatic habitat primarily consisted of beds of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) and emergent vegetation (EV) that was intermixed with wood or rock structure that provides habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms. This habitat created a transitional area of living shoreline between the hardened banks of the Buffalo River and the deep water of the river channel. These locations originally consisted of harden shoreline that included vertical concrete retaining walls, dilapidated dock structures, and rocky debris subsurface.
“When we first started, the shoreline was just a gray, straight up-and-down, concrete- wall, void of any life,” said Josh Unghire, an ecologist with the Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District. “There wasn’t structure for organisms to forage or find refuge in.”
In order to create a living shoreline, 530 tons of dilapidated wooden infrastructure was removed, clean sediment was brought in, tree logs and their roots crowns (rootwads) were anchored into shallow water areas, and approximately 13,500 native emergent and aquatic plugs were installed along the river’s edge at the project sites. Locked logs and rootwads are extremely beneficial nature-based features for establishing a living shoreline. The naturally complex structures provide coverage and refuge for various aquatic plants and animals. They also disperse wave energy slowing down shoreline erosion, which allows the native EV to establish along the shoreline.
“What the trees let you do is they can provide protection for a long period of time – 10 to 20 years,” said Unghire. “They trap sediment behind it, so it’ll naturally build up a shoreline and then plants will establish. So rather than just building a hard structure, which organisms really can’t use, we instead use something a little softer that will lead to more establishment of vegetation.”
The native EV plantings, which included blue flag iris, arrow arum, pickerel weed and water willow, provides habitat to several micro-invertebrates, such as mayflies, dragonflies and stoneflies. These organisms are a valuable food source for native fish and other aquatic organisms.
“Now that it’s established, you’ll start to see it grow a little bit denser and a little bit more robust every year,” said Unghire about the EV that was planted at the 301 Ohio Street site in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
“Now the animals can go after reptiles, they can go after fish, they can go after other organisms, so it provides a little bit more habitat diversity than there previously was,” said Unghire.
Each location also provided their own challenges. Even though similar techniques were applied at each site, some things that worked at the 70 Katherine Street and South Street sites did not work at the Ohio Street site. At one location, 530 tons of failing wood infrastructure was removed, and a terraced design was created to maximize planting zones against the vertical retaining wall. Clean sediment was also installed to provide a healthy subsurface for the almost 5,000 native plugs that was planted between 2018-2020.
“When we first started the contractor couldn’t plant because there was so much concrete, debris, and poor substrate that nothing could be planted until the wooden debris was cleared out and new fill was brought in,” said Lewis about the Ohio Street site.
High-water levels also kept the project team on their toes. At the South Street location, available workspace was primarily suitable for submerged aquatic vegetation due to higher than normal water levels. Due to that challenge, EV quantities for that location had to be adjusted. For the other locations, planting zone elevations had to be moved upland.
“High water has really had an impact on this whole project and we’ve really worked together as a team to combat those issues throughout the duration of this project,” said Lewis. “We’ve been adopting lessons learned and making tweaks as we go along for better plant survivability.”
The community also benefits from the living shoreline through improved fishing along the river with renewed opportunities for boating and kayaking along the river.
“By doing this project we’ve really created some soft shorelines, which is the purpose of creating these submerged aquatic habitat restoration projects,” said Lewis. “The Buffalo and the Niagara Region is really lacking in those soft shorelines, so this gives back to the environment that way.”
“We’ve been really happy with how it’s worked. Hopefully more of these types of GRLI projects will continue to receive funding,” said Unghire.