Workers stabilizing wetland at Island Creek

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — The stream that flows through the Hillsville Elementary School property next to the FFA farm meanders enough, but still causes deep erosion in its banks.
Water running under the hillside through Island Creek has actually stripped a large patch on the bank bare of topsoil and vegetation in a sharp bend.
Erosion would have continued to degrade the quality of the stream, but Branch Highways will step in to repair that damage as part of a contract with the Virginia Department of Transportation.


The restored waterway will replace some of the habitat that disappeared under the widening of U.S. 58 to four lanes to create the “Hillsville bypass.”
Federal regulations that protect water quality require VDOT to trade off what was lost under the $83 million, 5.2-mile, four-lane ribbon of paving that goes south of town.
The requirement set down by the Clean Water Act means that VDOT officials had to seek out places to mitigate the bypass project’s environmental impact.
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 off 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.
Transportation officials also designed a streambank mitigation project at the Hillsville Elementary School involving 1,776 linear feet of Island Creek.
“The goal of the restoration is to provide a stable stream pattern and profile and provide access to the flood plain during a high-water event,” he said. “It allows the stream to spread out so there’s less stress on the channel and on the streambanks and less erosion.”
The construction in the stream, the planting on the banks and 10 years’ worth of monitoring the results comes to $1.7 million, Bradley said.
That’s why people in orange-and-yellow reflective safety vests gather in the open space in the valley down the hill from the school in sometimes freezing temperatures.
Big dump trucks have gone to and fro, dropping of loads of gravel and small boulders near the Public Service Authority’s pump station off Floyd Pike.
Excavators have installed accesses over the stream, a dam to take the water away from the worksite with the help of an industrial strength pump and a fairly-straight diversion channel for the creek to temporarily flow through.
Foreman Dean Shuck and worker James Lane have been wading into the water in Island Creek during winter — protected by newly issued waterproof and insulated boots — armed with electronic surveying equipment and stakes, to mark where the new structures go into the stream.
The fact that the temperatures fell into the teens on several days in January definitely delayed some of the work — like when the gravel pile froze into one solid mass so the crew couldn’t break it apart to fill sandbags that will make up the dam.
Still, they have a schedule to meet, Shuck said. The heavy equipment will have to move out by spring to make way for the shrubs and threes that will be planted on the stream bank.
Trees and shrubs like sycamore, black gum, sweet birch, white oak, elderberry, red chokeberry, silky dogwood and swamp rose 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.
Crews also pulled up three trees, where the rootballs will add to the stabilizing structures on the banks.
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.
Shuck called these “step pools,” “riffles” and “rock toe protection,” meant to mirror naturally occurring creek flow and habitat and help with stability.
Both schoolchildren and citizens will be able to view the work done on the streambank restoration by way of a trail that will encircle the project, Bradley added. This will also connect to the trail that spans the school and farm site.
Though the original plans called for an additional length of the stream across Floyd Pike to be a part of the project, VDOT eliminated that section because it could not come to terms on a price with the landowners, Bradley said.
To make up the difference on the required mitigation, VDOT bought stream bank mitigation credits from the Nature Conservancy, he said. The habitat preservation non-profit can use the funds from VDOT on its other restoration projects.
The 944 stream compensation credits cost VDOT $354,000, according to the official.
Construction work should wrap up in the summer, and planting is scheduled to proceed in the fall.