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Protecting Our Assets: How to Keep A River in Shape

Withe, wattle, and gabion.* If you want to improve your vocabulary, start studying terms environmentalists bandy about when they develop strategies to control erosion that occurs around our State’s rivers and streams. It’s important work, because those waterways are among our most bountiful assets. In fact, straightened and placed end-to-end, Minnesota’s rivers and streams could circle the Earth almost three times.

Crews from Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI) play an important role in controlling erosion and repairing deteriorated river banks. They find the most opportunity at rivers and streams whose banks’ loose soil and lack of woody plants have made them particularly vulnerable. Eroding banks impact habitat and property – the former via sediment buildup that can harm fish and wildlife and upset the natural ecosystem; the latter via compromised banks that invite water to find its own path.

CCMI’s work can be as straightforward as adding stability to the soil by planting woody vegetation and grasses in bare spots or applying willow posts that sprout along the banks. More serious erosion control might mean using bundles of live branches, laying loose rocks, building stone walls and installing gabions.

At one CCMI project, the crew employed a newer method of erosion control that used large logs along with packed sticks and vegetation. Working in the gullies with mattocks and picks, they dug trenches, set in the ends of the logs and then used log carriers to hoist them. Positioning each log slightly above the next, they worked upward by sections along the stream. Once they set the logs, the team packed them with sticks and filled gaps with soil.

Because the method was new, CCMI crew members got a nice lesson in the importance of planning. “Measure twice, cut once” became the order of the day – particularly to avoid the need to extract or reposition a large log.  

Of course, further complicating any erosion project is the water that caused the problem in the first place. Add a bit of dirt, and you’re dealing with mud that can confound even the normally simple task of getting around. Mud can hold boots captive, and crew members tell stories of grabbing a handful of plants from the bank – some of them poison ivy – to gain leverage.

There’s no need for obscure words to describe the impact of these projects and the important role they play in maintaining the quality of life in our great state: “Beautiful” would probably do the job. 

*A withe is a slender flexible branch or twig. A wattle is a fabrication of poles interwoven with slender branches, withes, or reeds. A gabion is a basket or cage filled with earth or rocks. And a mattocks is a digging and grubbing tool, akin to an axe or pick.