Cast-off materials used to brace Ohio River islands 19 of 21 parcels in U.S. wildlife refuge were washing away

October 30, 1997|By John McCoy | John McCoy,CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL

ST. MARYS, W.Va. -- Smack in the middle of the Ohio River, two federal agencies are proving that it's possible to save a refuge with refuse.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is teaming up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent parts of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge from washing away. To cut costs, corps planners are using materials that ordinarily have been burned or trucked to some faraway landfill.

"We're pretty proud of the approach we're taking," says Mike Spoor, an engineer and hydrologist for the corps. "We're finding inventive and very cost-effective ways to shore up a resource that we can ill afford to lose."

Fish and Wildlife Service officials began noticing erosion problems on 19 of the refuge's 21 islands after the January 1996 and March 1997 floods.

"Erosion from flooding had cut back the heads of some islands as much as 200 feet," Spoor says. "Some islands lost several acres of land."

In a large river such as the Ohio, islands often change shape and size in response to the river's currents.

Usually, Spoor says, flooding cuts away at the heads of islands but dumps loose sediment at the island's lower ends. Islands that erode in this manner tend to maintain their size while migrating slowly downstream.

Recent floods, however, resulted in a great deal of damage without much compensating sedimentation.

"The heads of several islands were cut away pretty severely, and some of the islands lost land along their sides as well," Spoor says.

Alarmed by the losses, officials of the two federal agencies quickly agreed to carry out a cooperative program to slow or reverse the river's ability to erode the islands. Congress authorized $500,000 to shore up the head and flanks of Grape Island, home of a major great blue heron rookery. At the same time, lawmakers set aside $1.5 million to shore up Manchester Island No. 2.

Fish and Wildlife officials chose the corps to do the work because of the agency's track record at shoring up islands. In 1993, corps crews and contractors performed similar erosion-control work at Blennerhassett Island State Park near Parkersburg.

At Blennerhassett, workers were able to halt a significant erosion problem by reinforcing the head of the island with heavy stones, while constructing a series of angled "transverse dikes" to deflect currents away from the island's flanks.

Spoor says the corps and its contractor, Madison Coal and Supply of Port Amherst, are using a similar approach on Grape Island.

"We're reinforcing the head of the island with rock, but we're using a slightly different approach on the transverse dikes," he says.

Instead of building the dikes of stone, workers are building them of scrap wood.

The bundles, 8 feet long and about 4 feet in diameter, are lashed together with steel cables and pinned to the river bottom with anchors.

"The only cost is in the labor and materials needed to lash the bundles together," Spoor says. "The raw material - the wood - is scrap that would otherwise just have been burned or thrown away."

The low-tech, low-cost approach appears to be working. "The bundles at Grape Island haven't been in very long, and already we're seeing the areas behind them beginning to fill in with sediment," Spoor says. "Eventually, they'll form a wall along the side of the island and will prevent further erosion on that side. After they're covered by silt and water, they'll last a very, very long time."

Steve Wright, a spokesman for the corps' Huntington District, says the work that's being done represents only the tip of a very large iceberg of work to be done.

"We've identified about $10 million worth of work that really needs to be done," he says. "We'll be getting to that as Congress sees fit to appropriate the money."

Spoor says the work needs to be finished soon to avoid further losses to the refuge.

"The river system has changed since these islands were first deposited," he explains. "We no longer have shoals and riffles along this river. We have navigation dams and channel dredging and barge traffic. Man has altered the environment. The river can't build its islands back anymore.

"These islands are part of a wildlife refuge. We have a significant responsibility to be good stewards toward these islands. We can't afford to lose them. It would be an irreparable loss."

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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