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Streambanks on road to recovery

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VDOT replacing, repairing wetlands and wildlife habitats disturbed by the U.S. 58 hillsville bypass project

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Because the U.S. 58 bypass project south of Hillsville plowed under and paved over wetlands, the Virginia Department of Transportation must replace those habitats.
The requirement set down by the Clean Water Act means that VDOT officials had to seek out places to mitigate the five-mile bypass project's environmental impact.

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The federal regulations require the wetlands destroyed in roadwork to be replaced acre-for-acre.
Two such projects have cropped up near the bypass work area near Gardners Mill Road, where VDOT created an 18.1-acre wetland and installed a riparian buffer on Little Reed Island Creek, according to Kevin Bradley, VDOT's environmental program manager for the Salem transportation district.
While 18 acres is a big wetlands replacement project for the Salem district, it wasn't by itself enough to pay back the disturbance created by the bypass project.
So, the Virginia Department of Transportation has started the design phase for a streambank mitigation project at the Hillsville Elementary School and a cow pasture across U.S. 221 that's property of the Gardner family.
"The water quality permit requires mitigation for any unavoidable stream and wetland impacts associated with the project," Bradley explained. "We try to build within the same area — we find mitigation sites as close to the project area as possible."
VDOT found two willing partners in the school system and Dr. Joseph Gardner and Evelyn Marshall, trustees for the Gardner property.
Island Creek flows through both the pasture and the school site. Bradley said that the total amount of stream length and smaller tributaries included in the project is 7,072 linear feet.
This work will include areas consisting of restoration, enhancement, preservation and riparian buffer planting.
Preliminary plans for the streambank project notes the work will take place a mile north to a mile south of U.S. 221.
"It's a good candidate for restoration, and landowner participation is another," Bradley said about site selection.
Clearing lands can degrade streams. "When you cut away the trees from the stream, you don't have the roots to hold the soil," Bradley noted.
Roaming cattle on the pasture has caused erosion on that part of the creek, he explained. On the northern portion, the streambank mitigation will continue next to the Carroll County Public Schools Farm.
Educators have said the farm is a kind of "land lab" intended to give students insights into subjects like resource management, horticulture, landscaping, forestry, biodiversity and more.
The mitigation effort will create a 2,052-linear-foot loop trail along the school's portion of the stream, among other work.
It will be an example of environmental work included right by the school systems outdoor classroom. "There's an educational opportunity to provide for the students at the elementary school," Bradley explained.
Carroll Schools Superintendent Greg Smith explained that educators quickly saw the possibilities to enhance agricultural and science students' knowledge through the streambank work.
When it's all over, educators hope to have about a mile-long trail to facilitate those studies, as well as recreational opportunities. "What is exciting is, yes, the public will have access to every component of the project," Smith said.
The educational opportunities may germinate soon, as Smith says that talks with VDOT have touched on the idea of students participating in the streambank plantings.
Used in combination with the Big Green Bus mobile science lab, educators expect students to learn about water quality, erosion, plant propagation, biology, uses of fertilizers and other agricultural practices in a hands-on way, he said.
The schools property contains one of only two working school farms in Virginia, and educators want Carroll County students to get as many benefits out of the farm as possible, Smith said.
Though the Gardners have been receptive about the possibility of students exploring the improvements to their property, safety concerns about crossing 221 means that might not be possible, Smith said.
The Gardner-Hillsville project, as VDOT refers to it, will contain many of the elements used at Little Reed Island Creek, he said. Detailed plans that Bradley shared with The Gazette showed a swath of land where the embankments and the stream itself will undergo a facelift.
The main goals of streambank mitigation and riparian buffers are to slow down the water in the stream and cut down on erosion, he said. This goes along with replacing the habitat lost to the bypass project.
Along the banks of Island Creek, the plans call for plantings of native Virginia trees, shrubs and grasses.
In wetland areas, VDOT will sow seeds from fox sedge, wild rye, woolgrass, common boneset, green bulrush and more.
Trees and shrubs like witchhazel, walnut, red oak, serviceberry, American hornbeam, spicebush and blackhaw will take root in the riparian buffer and hold the dirt in place and spread a canopy that will provide shade over the water.
These improvements will both cool the water and provide stability on the bank, Bradley explained.
In the stream, VDOT will create channels to keep the stream flow away from the banks to reduce erosion and install pools to slow down the water.
The work will affect 14 acres on the school property and almost 44 acres in the pasture, he said.
Conservation easements on the 58 acres will protect this creek in perpetuity. The same is true for the constructed wetlands and the streambank mitigation by Little Reed Island Creek.
Still in the design phase, Bradley did not know a cost estimate yet.
Branch Highways, as the contractor engaged in the public-private partnership for the 58 bypass work, has the first option to do the streambank work, Bradley said. If VDOT and Branch cannot negotiate an acceptable price, then the state can bid the project out.
The streambank mitigation process is going through its public involvement phase. Those interested in making comments or asking questions can do so by contacting Bradley at the Salem district office.
Bradley has not fielded any calls about the project as yet.
Next, VDOT would move into acquisition of the necessary land, and then plans would go to the construction division, he said.
Requirements state that the mitigation work must be completed by the time that the Hillsville bypass is finished, Bradley said.

The phone number for the Salem district office to contact Bradley is (540) 387-5320.