An ambitious project to undo centuries of sediment build-up and restore its banks to their natural state has “clear cut” both sides of the Quittapahilla Creek from 22nd Street eastward, giving the area the appearance of a barren mud flat, to the chagrin of many passing motorists on West Chestnut Street.
But those involved with the project are confident that the Quittie will soon be green and in a few years will look almost like it did when the area’s early settlers first laid eyes on it.
What was the Quittie like 400 years ago?
If you walked along the Quittie in the past 50 years, you would have noticed something that wasn’t there 400 years ago: cliff-like vertical banks, looming as much as six feet above the water, often undercut by the stream. Trees and dense vegetation came right up to the banks.
That is not natural, according to Ben Ehrhart of LandStudies, the engineering firm overseeing the project.
Instead, Ehrhart said, the stream’s banks would have been lower centuries ago, just above water level, and the floodplain would have been a broad and more open wetland.
The Quittie starts in South Lebanon Township, flows westward across Lebanon County, and empties into the Swatara Creek.
In the old days, “there would have been dams and mill ponds associated with industries of various types all up and down the Quittapahilla,” Ehrhart explained.
“At the same time that was happening,” he said, “there would have been land clearing for agriculture, development, and timber production.”
The result, according to Ehrhart, was “massive erosion,” because there were no laws or regulations controlling those activities back then.
The eroding soil washed into the water, and the many dams and ponds, according to Ehrhart, “acted as very effective sediment traps. You had rapid accumulation of the soils that washed off the hill slopes,” allowing the sediment to build up.
As the mill dams were removed, the result was a sudden release of water that cut through the already built-up sediment, making the banks higher relative to stream level.
Today, the dams are almost all gone, and modern regulations control sediment deposits into streams. But the damage was done by the time they came into effect.
How has the sediment build-up been fixed?
Simply speaking, the built-up layer of “legacy sediment” has been scraped off, down to the original historical floodplain, and the existing trees and vegetation have been cut down.
Truckloads of removed sediment were sent to the Lebanon Area Landfill, where they will be used for daily cover material.
Native plants and trees will be replanted, Ehrhart said, resulting in a broad wetland and shallow stream channel, much the same as what existed three or four centuries ago.
For how long will it look ugly?
That’s the question many are asking.
The project footprint has already been reseeded and native trees have been planted, according to Ehrhart.
“Those take some time to get established. Some of [the newly-planted native species] are started,” although “you can’t really see them from the road yet,” Ehrhart said, noting that he expects the area to look brown through the winter.
“The anticipation is that in the spring — late May and June — that stuff will really start to pop. … It will look a lot better next summer, but it’s going to take more than a year,” Ehrhart predicted.
“By next August it should be looking pretty good. The following year it will be even better.”
Ehrhart noted that his firm, LandStudies, has done several similar floodplain restorations in Central Pennsylvania, one of which is the Lititz Run in Lancaster County, now 11 years post-completion.
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