A LebTown reader recently noticed some worrisome changes along the Quittapahilla Creek, and he wrote to LebTown to get to the bottom of the story.
“What is going on along Quittapahilla Creek east of 22nd Street,” reader Edward Eisenhauer asked. “The land is being ‘clear cut’ on both sides of the creek for several blocks.”
While residents of the area might miss the trees, an official in North Cornwall Township hastened to assure readers that the project is to the benefit, not detriment, of the creek.
“It’s a floodplain restoration project,” North Cornwall Township manager Tom Long told LebTown.
It’s a project being handled at the behest of the Lebanon County Stormwater Consortium, a group of local municipalities – Lebanon city, Cleona Borough, and Annville, North Cornwall, North Lebanon, and South Lebanon townships – along the Quittapahilla Creek watershed. The consortium was formed in 2017, Long explained, to meet the state Department of Environmental Protection‘s pollution reduction requirements for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems, or MS4.
Ultimately, he said, the goal of the MS4 regulations is to reduce pollutants reaching the vulnerable Chesapeake Bay.
Forming a consortium made sense, Long said.
“Instead of us doing individual permitting, which we had been doing for years, we do it as a group,” he said. “We get more bang for our buck by working together.”
DEP requires “sediment load reduction” to cut down on the amount of soil and debris that flows downstream and, eventually, hits the bay. This one project, Long said, meets DEP’s five-year permit cycle for the consortium members.
‘400 years of sediment’
A project overview, provided to LebTown by Darren Heisey, an engineering associate at Steckbeck Engineering & Surveying Inc., notes that the project’s goal “is to restore the Quittapahilla Creek’s channel and floodplain to conditions that existed centuries ago before the Lebanon Valley was populated and developed, and sediment began to build up and become a more serious issue.”
“They’re digging out 400 years of sediment that’s built up over there in that stream, lowering the stream level back down to what it was,” Long said.
“People think the stream got lower over the years,” he added. “The stream didn’t change, the dirt and sediment around it raised up … by four to six feet. This will take the banks back to what they used to be, removing all of that sediment.”
The project overview explains that each municipality in the consortium has its own MS4 permit through DEP.
“MS4 permitees are required to have an approved Pollutant Reduction Plan (PRP), which includes a scheduled list of projects designed to reduce Total Suspended Solid (TSS) loads (i.e. sediment loads) by 10% over a five (5) year period,” the overview states. “The Consortium’s member municipalities have an approved Joint Pollutant Reduction Plan. The advantage of the Joint PRP is that it allows the Consortium’s member municipalities to share in the cost of the projects, including design, permitting, and construction. Each municipality contributes a pro-rationed amount of money towards funding the projects included in the PRP. Therefore, a small municipality like Cleona Borough contributes much less than the City of Lebanon, but both municipalities receive the pollutant load reduction credits necessary for MS4 permit compliance.”
The project, which spans the creek roughly from 19th to 22nd Street, “is calculated to reduce the TSS pollutant load by more than 800,000 pounds per year.”
The overview adds: “The project involves excavation and removal of the many layers of legacy sediment built up over the years in order to expose the historical organic floodplain soils, as well as installation of woody debris structures and riparian plantings, which will provide a more ideal habitat for various species near the Quittapahilla Creek. This sediment has built up in the floodplain over many years and resulted in a narrow-cut stream channel, which is not environmentally ideal, as it leads to accelerated erosion of the streambed and greater levels of flooding downstream. The project also serves as an opportunity to stabilize the banks of the channel to mitigate further erosion of the stream, where possible.
“Excavation work should be completed by the end of summer and tree, shrub, live stake, and other groundcover plantings will be completed later in the fall when temperatures are better suited for planting. The proposed plantings include 138 trees, 177 shrubs, thousands of wetland plugs, and appropriate floodplain and upland seed mixes for groundcover.”
Stephen A. Sherk, director of civil engineering for Steckbeck, noted that Steckbeck “is not the design engineer for the Quittapahilla Creek Floodplain Restoration project.” Rather, he told LebTown, Steckbeck is the consortium’s appointed engineer.
Land Studies Inc. of Lititz is the design engineer for this project, Sherk explained. “Land Studies specializes in floodplain restoration projects such as this one and we hired them as our subconsultant for this project.”
Ecological benefits, flood control
Ben Ehrhart, at Land Studies, provided more detail about the work being done.
“There’s a lot of benefits to this type of project. The driver is water quality, and it’s doing that, but it’s also providing four acres of wetland restoration and habitat enhancement. There’s certainly a lot of ecological benefit to it in addition to water quality.”
It also will provide flood control, Ehrhart said.
While removing a few centuries’ worth of built-up sediment and lowering the surrounding floodplain might seem like a recipe for worse flooding in the future, Ehrhart explained that the opposite is true.
“The floodwaters can spread out and slow down,” he said. “Water is going to get out of bank more frequently, but still within the boundaries of the restoration project. We can get floodwaters out of the channel and into the floodplain faster. … It won’t have a big impact on 100-year floods, but on smaller nuisance storms, we may see improvement downstream.”
“When it does rain hard, it will fan out more, spread out, and you won’t have that rush of water,” Long agreed. “It will reduce flooding.”
Besides, Long added, the plants and vegetation they’re planting in the work area will have good root systems that will keep the floodplain stable, with less erosion.
“It should be self maintaining over time, once everything gets established,” he said.
Ehrhart said the project spans a little over 1,600 feet of the creek, from the flood control channel around 19th street to the bridge at 22nd Street. When the 22nd Street bridge is realigned, he said, he creekside improvements will be extended by another 100 to 200 feet.
The width of the new floodplain along the creek varies, he added, but in total it covers about four acres.
Excavation work should be finished in just a few weeks, Ehrhart said. “It’s being seeded and matted for stabilization as they go. The planting of trees and shrubs will be later in the fall.”
When everything is complete, he said, “it’s going to look different. You’ll be able to see in from the trail and from the road. You’ll be able to see into the meadow. There will be grasses, sedges and rushes, some flowering species. A different habitat. … There will be a lot of different birds coming in, it’s a unique habitat.”
From forest to wetlands
Initially, Ehrhart, there will be fewer trees along that section of the Quittapahilla than were there when the project began.
“The historical condition is more of a wetlands meadow rather than an upland forest,” he explained. “Four feet of legacy sediment had filled the valley. That’s what we’re removing. It kept everything high and dry, but originally it was a wetland meadow.”
There will be “a handful of trees in the floodplain,” he said, including sycamores and silver maples. “Over time, more trees will come in. And everything we’re planting is native.”
Long said the new wetlands will be monitored for three to five years to make sure the new vegetation has taken hold. After that, he said, the area will largely be allowed to develop naturally.
“It will be nicer and cleaner, coming back to life,” he said.
The landfill is taking all of the dirt that’s being removed from the site, he added. That will provide the landfill with a year or more’s worth of clean cover.
The cost of the project is just shy of $800,000, Long said.
Although this project fulfills the consortium’s DEP mandate for the next few years, Long said they are already looking at options for further work along the Quittapahilla in the future.
“The bank stabilization program is going to continue on down the Quittie,” he said. “In years to come, you’ll see it all connected. It will take 20 or 30 years to get all the streamways renovated and stabilized.
“The consortium has a pretty good game plan for other sites that are being looked at,” Ehrhart agreed. “There’s more potential down the road.”
The Lebanon County Stormwater Consortium meets at 10 a.m. on the third Tuesday of every month. This year, the consortium is meeting at the North Lebanon Township Building, 725 Kimmerlings Road.
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