The percentage of Ohio’s wetlands that have been destroyed or degraded since the late 18th century.
It’s almost like a sixth sense kicks in when Dana Ohman is out in the field assessing stream health. Sure, there’s plenty of science involved. Boulders are counted. Pool depth is measured. Habitat for fish and bugs is evaluated. The list goes on.
But then there’s the art of it all. The space within which decidedly unscientific things like senses and imagination come into play.
“You can actually tell a lot about stream health just by the way the stream feels on the bottom of your feet,” Ohman says. “A stream bottom that’s stable tells you one thing, while squishiness tells you another.”
It’s a skill presumably acquired only by those who have long since lost track of the number of times they’ve walked in a creek bed. Ohman falls into that category. A stream and wetland mitigation specialist for The Nature Conservancy in Ohio, Ohman’s job is to help restore waterways and floodplains as part of our mitigation program.
What is Stream and Wetland Mitigation?
There’s a lot at stake. In a state that’s lost 90 percent of its original wetlands, good mitigation is of the upmost importance. TNC’s mitigation program is founded on federal and state laws that require developers to avoid and minimize harm to wetlands and streams.
When regulators consider the impacts to be unavoidable, they must be mitigated by protecting or restoring nearby water resources. In the past, many of the projects undertaken by developers on their own were ecologically unsuccessful. Now regulators prefer that developers pay a fee to an approved mitigation provider like TNC to do the required environmental restoration work. TNC is able to collect and aggregate these fees and apply them to the best possible stream and wetland conservation projects it can identify.
Strait Creek Revival
Today, five years after the launch of the program, the mitigation team is in the final stages of its first large-scale effort at Strait Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River located in rural southern Ohio’s Brown County.
“I remember walking along Strait Creek for the first time and thinking, this is going to be awesome,” Ohman says.
What Ohman saw that day was a creek that essentially had been moved out of the way. Here, in the rugged foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, land suitable for agriculture has always been at a premium. Pushing streams toward the outer edges of a valley afforded settlers more space to grow crops and create infrastructure like roadways as populations expanded. In doing so, many streams like Strait Creek were straightened and channelized, resulting in issues with erosion, flooding and loss of both terrestrial and aquatic wildlife habitat.
Where most people would have seen only a degraded waterway, Ohman saw potential.
“You have to read the land, and imagine it prior to European settlement,” she says. “What the tree cover might have been like, how the stream would have moved through the valley, what plants would have existed along the banks.”
Armed with a vision and plenty of stream quality data, Ohman’s job is to then help create a restoration plan. In the case of Strait Creek, this plan will result in dramatic ecological change. The valley is being transformed from one dominated by straightened ditches and abandoned agricultural fields, to streams teeming with life that meander through abundant wetlands and riparian forest.
“It’s like going to your doctor,” she says. “Your symptoms are evaluated, and you’re given a prescription. We write prescriptions, too.”
These days, Ohman and her teammates are writing plenty of prescriptions. The mitigation program has restored 1.3 miles of stream and 1.7 acres of wetlands through its project at Strait Creek and has another 30 restoration projects in various stages of planning. In addition, the mitigation program has protected nearly 70 acres of high-quality wetlands from development.
While the final stage of restoration at Strait Creek won’t take place until later this spring, when streambank vegetation is planted, Ohman says the project already received an unofficial certification of success when a family of beavers moved in early last winter.
“Beavers are nature’s original environmental engineers,” she says. “They’ll help take it from here.”