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Erosion control and gully repair: muddy and rewarding work

By Samantha Hircock

The banks of rivers and streams naturally erode, allowing waterways to meander and change course. Sometimes, though, banks with less woody plants or loose soil types can erode more dramatically, affecting habitat and property, causing sediment buildup and potentially harming the fish and wildlife that depend on the stability of the ecosystem.

There are diverse methods of controlling the erosion of stream and river banks. Those that add stability to the soil are used most often, such as planting more woody vegetation and grasses in bare spots or applying willow posts to sprout along the banks. More serious erosion control steps might mean using bundles of live branches, laying loose rocks, building stone walls and installing gabions (basically chicken wire baskets filled with rocks).

At the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Jasper County, Iowa we had the chance to work on a newer method of erosion control using large logs along with packed sticks and vegetation. Working in the gullies with mattocks and pick mattocks we dug trenches, set in the ends of the logs and then hoisted them manually with log carriers. Situating each log slightly above the next, we worked upwards in several sections of the stream. Once logs were set, we packed them in with sticks and filled gaps in with soil.

Although the water level at the time was low it was muddy in some places, which made the work more interesting. Sometimes to get boots unstuck, we’d have to grab a bank load of plants – some of them poison ivy – to gain leverage; one fellow had to dig out from mud up to his boot tops.

Because the method is new to this area we had to work out our plan a bit more creatively at the start. We learned the valuable lesson of how many times one ought to measure before cutting or dropping large objects into yet-to-be-large-enough trenches. But we quickly established our approach and became such pros that we finished early!

Overall we agreed that the project was fun albeit a muggy, muddy struggle. We were glad to have had a new experience and to have been so involved in the formative process of the task. We also got see the culmination of the work we did and that was a great feeling.