ZELIENOPLE — The flow of knowledge was evident Jan. 30 as two speakers discussed watersheds to bring public attention to floodplain and riparian — or riverbank — ecosystems.
The event, partially organized by Adams Township officials, was specifically planned to educate people on the Breakneck Creek stream restoration project.
Roy Weitzell, doctor of environmental science at Chatham University, lives in Adams Township and works with aquatic resources. While completing his degree, he studied urban systems, such as those developing in southwestern Butler County.
“This is kind of right in my wheelhouse,” Weitzell said during the program at the Strand Theater.
What’s a riparian area?
Riparian areas are transition areas on the banks of rivers. A riparian ecosystem includes all of the organisms that exist near flowing water. Weitzell said he also believes flowing water is part of the system. The systems include floodplains, if not extending just beyond them.
“There is no boundary, black and white,” Weitzell said. “There is important contact between the water and the soil.”
Riparian ecosystems have two characteristics.
First, they have laterally flowing water that rises and falls at least once in a growing season. Secondly, these systems are connected with other ecosystems.
In recent years, the rise and fall of water has been extremely volatile, Weitzell said.
“With increased rainfall … we’re having more than once a season,” Weitzell said. “Whatever the source, the climate is changing.”
Weitzell added that riparian ecosystems also tend to be areas of concentrated biodiversity. Where water meets land can be a perfect habitat for plants and animals.
Among other things, healthy riparian ecosystems provide nutrient cycling, energy transfer and attenuation to downstream flooding. This means riparian vegetation reduces flooding downstream.
That vegetation grows in historical wetland soil, according to Phil Gryskewicz of Olsen Craft Associates. Historical wetland soil can be several levels below the top of the land. Adams Township dug sample pits along Breakneck Creek to identify where wetland used to be as a precursor to the stream restoration.
Project would redevelop stream bank
The Breakneck Creek stream restoration project should redevelop 4,695 linear feet of stream bank and remove 210,710 pounds of sediment a year. The area has about six acres of wetlands. An additional 20 acres will be created.
The project is being pursued under the Municipal Separate Storm and Sewer System program. MS4 began in the 1990s at the federal level and is being looked at locally.
“Without that program, quite honestly, we wouldn’t be doing this project,” Gryskewicz said.
Small veins of water run into larger tributaries until they reach a big body of flowing water. The Breakneck Creek flows into Connoquenessing Creek. It’s important to protect each part of riparian ecosystems, according to Weitzell. Losing one can alter the others.
Weitzell told visitors to consider each stream in the Breakneck watershed as alveoli, or air sacs, in a pair of lungs.
“As we develop, we don’t want to compromise,” Weitzell said. “We are dependent on them.”
Legislation can have an effect on how well watersheds are protected, Gryskewicz said. The trick is keeping track of changing administrations and agendas.
“It’s constantly changing and you have to keep up with it,” Gryskewicz said.
Weitzell encouraged the public to take a look at existing development regulations as they relate to buffer zones, the area left as protection between a development and a riparian ecosystem. Watersheds can be protected by buffer corridor continuity, width and vegetation.
Buffer zones that are at about 100 feet long are able to protect ecosystem function, Weitzell said. To achieve MS4 credit, buffer zones need to be a minimum of 35 feet. Both Weitzell and Gryskewicz agreed buffer zones need to be longer.
Several municipalities in Butler County are coming together to form a MS4 coalition. The group will specifically look at watershed restoration, stormwater management and related issues.
Responsible development boils down to healthy riparian ecosystems, according to Weitzell.
“We really need to come to understand them,” Weitzell said, “and how we can move forward with the watershed in a sensible way.”