by Abby Henkel, Communications Director
This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of The Twig, our newsletter for Sycamore members. To see more articles or view it as a PDF, click here.
“It seems very safe to me to be surrounded by green growing things and water.”
Barbara Kingsolver, in an interview with NPR
This simple statement holds so much meaning. Forests and streams are more than just habitat for plants and animals. They can be places of nourishment, sanctuary, healing, history, and growth. Human life depends on healthy woods, from tree huggers to city slickers.
An integral part of southern Indiana’s natural landscape is its water. We talk a lot about forests, land, and native species, but none of these would survive without the lakes, streams, wetlands, ponds, and creeks that flow through this hilly environment. Fifty percent of the endangered or threatened species in the U.S. depend on rivers and streams to exist (conservationtools.org).
We’ve devoted this issue of The Twig to water because water quality is so crucial to public health and recreation, the survival of ecosystems, and the future of this planet. Thanks to the support of our members, Sycamore is working diligently to protect water in southern Indiana and beyond, because the actions we take here ripple out far beyond our borders.
Read on to learn more about our unique waterscape, threats to water quality, and what we’re doing to make a real difference. Click here for tips on how you can help keep Indiana’s water cleaner.
A watershed is “a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays, and the ocean.” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Southern Indiana mostly falls into the watersheds of either the Wabash River or the Ohio River. But within those larger regions, you can break it down further into several forks of the White, Ohio, and Muscatatuck rivers, and many smaller watersheds.
Looking at conservation through the various watersheds we impact is important for several reasons. Because watersheds are centered on the flow of water from high land to lower ground, and then onto bodies of water, we can predict and track how the habitat we restore in one area impacts others downstream. And because humans and wildlife rely so heavily on clean water for survival, conservation plans must take into account our impact on water quality.
THREATS TO WATER QUALITY
Contamination from chemicals, sediment, and sewage is a major threat to water quality in Indiana. A 2017 report from the Conservation Law Center (CLC) states that 7,000 miles of streams and rivers in Indiana are harmed because we are piping raw sewage directly into them.
Beyond this rather disturbing fact, Indiana has an aging water infrastructure. The CLC report emphasizes the need to improve not only our built structures like pipes, but also “our expansive natural infrastructure: the landscape that influences our ground and surface water.”
Natural areas like forests and prairies have porous terrain that naturally controls the rate of rainfall or snowmelt runoff. Groundwater is recharged and stored for times of lower water levels, such as hot summer days. Fish and other aquatic life depend on this process to keep water levels high enough for their survival.
But nonporous surfaces like pavement and roofs, and even mowed lawns, prevent water from soaking into the ground. Instead, it flows directly into streams. Fast runoff across impervious surfaces can mean:
Water reaches streams at a higher temperature, which raises fish susceptibility to pathogens, limits food availability, inhibits reproduction, and increases animals’ need for oxygen while the amount of dissolved oxygen actually decreases.
Water runs off in smooth, straight conduits, gaining speed and entering at a rate that damages streamside vegetation and aquatic habitat.
Runoff can flow through sewage treatment plants and pick up other sediment that it carries into waterways.
To some degree, sediment is a natural part of lakes and streams. Bottom habitat from decomposing branches and leaves is important for aquatic life. But when runoff picks up too much unwelcome sediment on its way to a body of water, havoc can result.
According to one Environmental Protection Agency report, excess sediment is a leading cause of water quality damage in the U.S. By clouding the water, sediment impedes light from reaching underwater plants. These plants are a critical part of the aquatic ecosystem by consuming nitrogen, producing oxygen, and providing habitat and food. Increased runoff can also spur extra algal bloom, which kills aquatic life by reducing dissolved oxygen levels.
Read enough depressing statistics? We have too. So let’s roll up our sleeves, put on our waders, and make some positive change for Indiana’s waterways.
Sycamore is working to improve water quality in Indiana in several ways, but perhaps the biggest is building riparian buffers. These are areas of vegetation, preferably native plants, that border and protect rivers, streams, and other bodies of water, and the bigger they are, the more good they can do.
Over-sedimentation of water occurs when there aren’t enough barriers or water absorption as runoff heads toward waterways. Riparian buffers have been shown to reduce sediment load in runoff by 60 to 90% (conservationtools.org). Tree roots and downed trees form a barrier to slow the flow of surface water, trapping sediment before it reaches the water. Roots of woody and herbaceous plants strengthen stream banks to better withstand erosion. Thick riparian buffers full of woody and herbaceous plants (not just grass) are uniquely good at trapping nitrogen from runoff, a major pollutant of watersheds. And studies show that the wider a buffer is, the more effectively it traps such harmful nutrients.
Forests also play a major role in regulating stream temperature. Thick forest canopies over smaller streams are extremely effective at regulating the amount of sunlight that reaches the water. This helps minimize temperature fluctuations and maximum temperatures. And the woody material that falls from trees into the water provides fish habitat, food for macroinvertebrates, and traps for additional leaf litter and wood. Trees create more bottom habitat than streams with grassy buffers, and store nitrogen in their trunks before it reaches the water.
This is why Sycamore concentrates on expanding some of our most important properties along bodies of water. The Beanblossom Creek Conservation Area is a perfect example. Beanblossom Creek flows into the White River, passing more than 50 miles of agricultural and developed land on its way. As we continue to acquire and restore properties along the creek, we can prevent chemicals and other sediment from flowing directly into the creek. Sycamore protects more than 1,500 acres in this conservation area, and we strategically add to our protected land there as we’re able.
Sycamore’s long stretches of woods along Beanblossom Creek also provide corridors for the safe shelter and migration of wildlife. As we envision an Indiana that looks more like the wooded landscape of our past, building wildlife corridors will be a crucial part of conservation. Sycamore collaborates with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the US Forest Service, and other conservation groups to realize this large-scale vision.