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When the Hocking River Turned

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Athens and Beyond

A 1960s-era project on the Hocking River has left a modern-day impact on the rivers’ biome.

Graduate student Jasmine Facun pointed to the unmowed strip of tall grasses and tree saplings along the bike trail from O’Bleness Hospital to the university baseball fields.

“Things can live here,” she said.

Then she pointed at the freshly mowed turf grass along the Hocking River in Athens.

“There isn’t a whole lot living here,” she said, running her feet through the short grass nearest to the bike trail.

Facun is an environmental science graduate student at Ohio University, working on her thesis studying the benefits of rehabilitating the riparian, or the riverside, of the Hocking River using prairie restoration techniques.

In order to understand the environmental and visual aspects of the Hocking River landscape near Ohio U, one must recall that the river was in fact moved in the 1960s and 70s.

In 1969 — in response to a spate of damaging flooding wreaking havoc on the Ohio U’s West Green campus — the United States Army Engineer Corps rerouted and straightened a portion of the Hocking River to skirt around campus and prevent flooding in Athens. This layout is now the current flow of the river, according to the Hocking Conservancy District (HCD).

The project, completed in 1971, is estimated to have saved millions of dollars in damages, according to the HCD. 

But the solution to a difficult problem came with several large burdens. The channelized portion of the river requires yearly maintenance to keep high flooding at bay, Mark Holdcroft, secretary-treasurer of HCD, said. The HCD hire one or two seasonal workers to maintain the riparian by dredging the riverbed with an excavator, mowing the riparian and other general maintenance tasks.

He said dredging is important to ensure that water passes through the channel as fast as possible. Sandbar buildups caused by sedimentation can slow the water flow as it passes through the channel. Sandbars increase drag and reduce water speed, increasing flooding risk, Holdcroft said.

He described dredging as “giving a sandbar a haircut,” a process he said means the equipment never disturbs the water.

Even though they may never disturb the water, the HCD must ultimately place environmental concerns behind the imminent flooding risk the Hocking can pose to Athens, Holdcroft said.

“We’re not necessarily charged with being the most environmentally friendly place in the world,” Holdcroft said. “The channel is not designed to be an environmentally friendly-made project, it’s not natural — nothing about it is natural.”

Facun, who also works at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, is determined to see if there is any merit in middle ground prairie and grass restoration techniques along the Hocking’s riverside. 

For the past three years, she has been cultivating grassland growths in three locations along the river with the segment along the bike path by O’Bleness — the most visible segment to students. The HCD has agreed not to mow her set-aside portions of the riparian area so she can study the effects of prairie restoration.

Her intention is to create an area that would still offer resistance to flooding, but also would allow some of the native fauna to return to the river banks. At her sample area, there is a wide diversity of tall grasses and tree saplings; honey bees happily buzz about through the strip.

A return of pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, is vital to the health of the ecosystem, Facun said.

“It would only serve us to make sure pollinators are getting the quality habitat they need,” Facun said.

She continued, saying the mowed grass area only leaves clovers, chewed up by mowers, for the bees to collect pollen from.

However, she tempered her principles by citing the potential risks associated with restoration like increased flooding risk, tree growth and invasive species.

“We can’t let this go back to the natural river, that’s not going to happen, and that’s not what I’m proposing,” Facun said. “Maybe there’s some sort of happy medium where we can establish some sort of quality habitat. I don’t want anything I propose to increase flooding potential — I live here too.”

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