WEST LAMPETER TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Jeffrey Hartranft remembers what it was like the day the project launched 10 years ago. The bulldozers. The beeping. The noise.
A bold experiment was under way at Big Spring Run, and the feeling for Hartranft was a bit traumatic.
“It was quite a scene out here,” he said. “This isn’t your typical type of restoration where you have volunteers planting trees. We actually had equipment in the valley.”
Ten years later, the bulldozers are long gone, and nothing appears out of the ordinary. The legacy sediment removal and stream restoration is being touted as a success.
Roughly 22,000 cubic yards of material rich in nitrogen and phosphorus was scooped out and is no longer being carried to the nearby stream. The layers of mud and rocks had been piled several feet high.
A cattle crossing and fencing allow access to pasture and drinking water but keep the animals from damaging the ecosystem.
Hartranft, a wetland and stream expert at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, stood in thick, knee-high grass and explained the achievements of the project.
“Within a year the response was very obvious to us,” Hartranft said. “There was water everywhere. The plant communities began to respond rapidly. The monitoring showed the sediment reductions were immediate. That was a great outcome.”
Scientists and environmental professionals gathered Sept. 30 at the farm in West Lampeter Township for a 10-year reunion. It was a celebratory occasion for everyone involved.
Interest in the Big Spring experiment blossomed when Robert Walter and Dorothy Merritts, husband and wife scientists and professors at Franklin & Marshall College, wrote an influential paper detailing how centuries of land use, such as prolific use of mill dams, had buried pre-colonial wetlands and mounded up highly erodible stream banks.
By removing the sediment and restoring the streams to their natural floodplain, they believed the water could be returned to its original state.
Joe Sweeney, the former landowner, gave permission to run the experiment on the property where his children once played with their cars and army figures. Funding was provided by DEP’s Growing Greener Program.
Sweeney is now the executive director of the Water Science Institute. He said the experiment is a “significant achievement in floodplain and stream restoration and a milestone partnership between funders, landowners, scientists, regulatory agencies and environmental professionals.”
The hope is Big Spring can serve as an example for other areas trying to remove erosion sediment from waterways.
“We’re trying to continue to educate people,” Sweeney said, “to tell them the Chia Pet that is the restoration behind us, how that was a potential model because of the science, because of the policy and because of the practice. We continue to promote that.”
Hartranft said the length of the stream has doubled to about 6,000 feet, and the cost of the restoration was approximately $600,000.
Vegetation quickly returned to the muddy hills that were left behind by the construction equipment that removed the sediment. Hartranft saw the benefits almost immediately. The land became what he termed “a wetland-dominated ecosystem.” Tiny stream channels that support fish have formed.
Cathy Myers, former DEP deputy secretary and a member of the Water Science Institute board of directors, said the project is essential to changing the approach to cleaning waterways.
“We had to have real science and get the word out,” Myers said. “We still have doubters. We still have trouble with this 10 years out, really showing there’s a piece of this whole picture of the watershed health that we didn’t understand. We didn’t account for it. So we’re not doing public policy to fix it.”
Although Hartranft said his “heart was in his throat” when the bulldozers started removal, he had confidence in the hypothesis. He expected the environmental resources to return.
Big Spring could be a big step toward change. Hartranft believes the evidence speaks for itself.
As if on cue, a herd of cattle walked down a hill and took a drink from the rejuvenated stream shortly before the ceremony began.
“It’s rewarding, that’s for sure,” Hartranft said of the project. “This is my favorite place to come and do field work.”