Reforestation seen as solution for Hinkson Creek

Tuesday, December 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:41 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Reforestation has emerged as a low-cost way to help reduce runoff and pollution at Hinkson Creek. A program organized by Jason Hubbart would divert rainwater from the creek into a field at the Forum Nature Area that will be reforested.

COLUMBIA — As a scientist, Jason Hubbart has not been a political player in the three-year standoff between local government agencies and MU with the federal government over the water quality in Hinkson Creek.

But the MU assistant professor of forest hydrology sees a potential solution in floodplain reforestation as an affordable way to meet a federal mandate to reduce pollution in the stream. The city likes his idea.


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Hubbart, a member of the Hinkson Creek Science Team, is working with the city on plans to return part of the Forum Nature Area along Hinkson Creek to forest. In his EPA-financed research, Hubbart found that trees can increase the soil's ability to hold water by as much as 30 percent.

The pilot project would divert rainwater from Hinkson into the field targeted for reforestation that would act as a natural filtration system, preventing pollutants from entering the creek and reducing the amount of water flowing into the stream.

Plans call for a swale, a low stretch of land, planted with native plants to carry water away from the creek. Water from the swale would enter into a concrete curb, or "level spreader," which spreads the water out over a large area so it can be absorbed faster. Once trees are allowed back, they would consume more water through transpiration.

"I don’t think this solution will solve all of our water quality problems," Hubbart said. "But it could help a lot, and it’s cheap. Really cheap. If we just step back from the floodplain, and don’t touch it, trees are going to come back all by themselves."

The Environmental Protection Agency declared Hinkson Creek to be impaired, or polluted, in 1998. To help relieve pollution and erosion, the agency ordered the city to reduce runoff by nearly 40 percent. Ideas included the construction of large reservoirs and other holding basins and cost estimates to meet the targets ranged from $30 million to $300 million.

The reforestation and level spreader would cost an estimated $25,000. If the Forum Nature Area project is successful, the approaches used there could be implemented up and down Hinkson Creek.

"It's inexpensive compared to other storm drain projects," said Tom Wellman, an engineering specialist with the city Department of Public Works and a member of the Hinkson Creek Science Team. "This concept is pretty adaptable."

In a historical context, floodplains were normally forested, Hubbart said. But agriculture and urban development led to deforestation. This image of non-forested banks has been around for hundreds of years and has become a popular conception of how they should look, he said.

"As it turns out, in our area, having anything other than forest next to a creek takes a lot of maintenance," Wellman said. The Department of Parks and Recreation manages the Forum Nature Area and would like to "bow to the obvious" and start letting that southeast area reforest, he said.

Although the soil has been drained of nutrients from agriculture, enough remain to allow trees to grow, Hubbart said. Bottomland trees such as cottonwood, willow, poplar and sycamore would work well because they tolerate flooding, consume a lot of water and transpire a lot.

"It’s such a no-brainer; it’s so cheap," Hubbart said of reforestation. "You have marginal floodplain lands, plant trees, and there is virtually no maintenance cost."

Deforestation and urbanization have led to increased erosion, which can pollute streams with soil and other pollutants. Erosion causes smaller particles that have more surface area, which allow more chemicals to be absorbed and washed into the creek. 

Reforestation would slow down the volume of water going into the creek, therefore the peak flows may be lessened, and therefore the amount of erosion in the stream and the amount of suspended sediment might be reduced, Hubbart said.  

To make the reforestation more effective, water would be diverted into the nature area with a 250-foot concrete curb that would release water slowly into the field, which would act as a natural filtration system. The plan would address about 115 acres, a fraction of the 90 square miles that drain into Hinkson Creek.

"The importance of something like this is more in what we can learn from it and how it can be applied in other areas," Wellman said.

The spreader would be designed to accommodate small- and medium-sized storms. These storms, 1.3 inches or less, make up 90 percent of rainfall in Columbia, according to Wellman.

Although smaller storms don't place as much stress on streams as bigger rains, more erosion occurs as a result of small storms because of their regularity.

"In the past, someone like me would have been focusing on 3.5-inch storms or 5-inch storms, the big ones, to prevent flooding, but in the meantime, all these little ones have been causing damage," Wellman said.

Wellman also needs to keep a small amount of water running through the original ditch that leads into Hinkson Creek to support the ecosystem there.

"There are critters living in that creek, in that little flow line, that depend on that water," Wellman said. "So, we don’t want to cut it off entirely."

The next step for the reforestation and the level spreader would be getting approval from the Hinkson Creek Stakeholder Committee and, eventually, Public Works and the Department of Parks and Recreation. A public hearing would precede a decision by the Columbia City Council. 

Wellman said that a lot of people view Hinkson Creek as a large drainage ditch that is terribly polluted.

"It’s not lifeless," Wellman said. "It’s actually really pretty. It’s a beautiful resource right through the center of town. We think it’s one of the better urban streams you could ever find, so it’s a resource worth protecting."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.


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Michael Williams December 18, 2012 | 7:52 a.m.

I like the concept. We've hindered the natural succession of creek bottoms with our parks and trails...and I'm in favor of the reforestation project.

I am concerned, tho, that the reforestation will be seriously compromised by our city-wide infestation of bush honeysuckle. It will cost a lot of money to keep it out of any new woods.

I would like to see support for the rather blanket statement, "Although the soil has been drained of nutrients from agriculture..."

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 18, 2012 | 8:04 a.m.

I'm also curious about the cost of the native plants. I'm assuming grasses and forbs. Last time I planted savannas, the seed cost was over 300 bucks/acre...mainly because of the forb costs. But even grasses can be expensive: little bluestem---15.00/lb; river oats---$30.00/lb; wild rye---$9.00/lb; indian grass---$8.50/lb (source....2012 Missouri Wildflowers Nursery catalog).

That's several thousand dollars in addition to the swale and leveler, dependent upon how much land (and at what seeding rate) is planted native.

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble December 18, 2012 | 12:13 p.m.

Some good concepts here, especially the "less is more" idea that's in contrast to the "everything's better with concrete" mindset seemingly plaguing most of our city activities. But where is the complementary plan to reduce the emissions of toxins in the first place, and to reduce overall runoff? It would be nice to see, for once, a full solution implemented that included better planning and stronger regulation - as opposed to just trying the cheapest option that doesn't address the source of the problem, 14 years after being told a solution was needed. If the source problem isn't addressed, the unchecked scale of the source problem will eventually overcome this potential remedy.

As to the issue of soil nutrient depletion - there's not really any question about that, though it's not prioritized enough. Large-scale monoculture ag is responsible for massive waterway pollution and loss of topsoil and soil nutrients, which for some baffling reason seems to be considered acceptable.

Agree with Michael about the issue of honeysuckle - it's already bad, and if proactive steps aren't taken, it would compromise future plans.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 18, 2012 | 2:35 p.m.

Kevin: Well, yes, there IS a question about that...which is why I said I would like to see that sentence supported with the data. Let's see the actual numbers on major and trace elemental analysis....especially after the floods we've had down there since the fields were last farmed.

Let's see the data. Right here in this newspaper.

What amazes me is, if you are correct and the soil IS depleted, what the hell do folks in support of grass biomass think is going to happen when they harvest TONS of hay from fields....year after year after year? How is THAT different than corn/soy/wheat "monoculture"? Is there a "good" monoculture versus a "bad" monoculture if you are green? If so, define both.

There's no consistency of thought, here! There is, however, a great consistency for selection/rejection of data you want/don't want to believe.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 18, 2012 | 2:45 p.m.

Kevin: As far as the honeysuckle goes, Columbia's forests are already compromised. It's everywhere; almost EVERYTHING that you see in our forests this time of year is bush honeysuckle. For those who don't know, look for copious red berries (not always present), some green/yellow-green leaves that are opposite on a tan bunch of upright stems.

Unless you are willing to cut the plant down...individually...with a chainsaw plus paint the stumps with herbicide (at $125/acre, contracted), AND fight that enormous seed bank already in the soil, our forests AREN'T coming back. That stuff is so dense there will be no little trees to replace all those lovely big trees. IMO, our forest future is a bunch of dead den trees and an understory of honeysuckle.

Sad. We didn't take care of our forests.

Plus, birds are pooping those seeds all over Columbia. IMO, it's a lost cause. In 10-15 years, the only way you'll walk through a Columbia forest is if a trail is present. No more walking in the woods; the stuff is impenetrable and filled with ticks (one recent measurement....20000 seed ticks per 10 meters square in St. Louis, if I recall...deer love bedding in the stuff).

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 18, 2012 | 2:47 p.m.

Correction to last post is in brackets: "...almost EVERYTHING that you see in our forests [that is green or yellow-green] this time of year is bush honeysuckle..."

(Report Comment)

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