In a team effort, The Nature Conservancy's staff in Pennsylvania and New York joined forces to restore and reconnect floodplain forest habitat near the Neversink River Preserve. The project focused on removing an earthen berm—350' long and up to 5' high—that remained from when agriculture dominated the landscape. To prepare the land for crops, farmers would push large quantities of dirt towards the river, an action that prevented the water from spreading out to follow its natural course.
Following berm removal, the team planted native seeds and 178 trees in the disturbed area, and an additional 932 trees on a four-acre parcel adjacent to the project. These efforts complemented restoration already completed on more than 50 acres located nearby. The resulting floodplain forest is expected to eventually welcome back key wildlife and showcase how nature can reduce the impacts of floods.
“In its natural state, a river’s floodplain stores water to reduce flooding, and filters runoff to improve water quality," says Su Fanok, TNC’s director of freshwater conservation in Pennsylvania. “Floodplain forests also host a variety of rare plants and wildlife.”
Value of a Floodplain
According to Fanok, this project is part of a comprehensive approach to reducing the occurence of floods that bring devastation to many communities. Restoring habitat within a river's floodplain also benefits wildlife.
She adds, "Abandoned pools in the floodplain provide important breeding habitats for reptiles and amphibians. Standing dead trees (snags) provide cavities for bats and wood ducks, and Great Blue Heron colonies and bald eagles are often found nesting in river floodplains."
To capture valuable services provided by floodplains like the Neversink, TNC is partnering with the American Planning Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Association of State Floodplain Managers and the National Association of Counties on a project called Naturally Resilient Communities. The project is designed to help communities employ nature-based solutions to alleviate impacts from flooding, erosion and storms.
Nature Returns to the Neversink
Left to its own devices, the Neversink River’s natural floodplain will spread out for more than a mile. Whether or not this is allowed to happen has a direct effect on places downstream, including the Delaware River, which drains more than 14,000 square miles and serves as a source of drinking water for 15 million before flowing into the Delaware Bay.
“We are using technology to identify areas along these rivers where reconnection and restoration would be most beneficial for people and wildlife,” adds Fanok. “By removing the barriers, we create new, ecologically rich forest and wetland habitats. We also give water permission to spread out, slow down and replenish local aquifers. Projects like this provide the ability to lower the height and force of the river’s flow, naturally.”