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Good to Grow: Clearing, channeling streams can make flash flooding worse

By By Alex Cole
Good to Grow
ALEX COLE | Courtesy photo
Streams that are channeled and cleared are more likely to cause flash flooding for downstream neighbors.

I’m willing to bet, if you are in West Virginia and you are reading this paper, you’re within a stone’s throw of a creek or river. I would argue the streams define this state even more than the mountains.

Sure the mountains appeared, big and tall, millions of years ago, but it’s the water that has been cutting and carving them into shape ever since.

The hoity-toity called us river rats in the county seat. I grew up in Fraziers Bottom running the creeks and backwaters of the lower Kanawha Valley.

As an adult, I’d give up a day’s pay to walk a stream. The sweeping curves, the cut banks, the waterfalls and shallow riffles — nothing is more dynamic or entertaining as an Appalachian stream. You never know what’s around the next corner.

I never thought it would come in handy. Then I took a class called Fluvial Geomorphology. The best thing about going to college is being able to spout the big words in bar conversations, so you can sound impressive. Just saying “fluvial geomorphology” makes me feel smarter, but it’s not complicated. It’s a class in which even a river rat can get an A.

“Fluvial” simply means running water, and “geomorphology” is the study of changing land. So you can see why I liked it.

For better or worse, our waterways dictate how we use the land. With all the flooding in the last few years, this should not come as a surprise to anyone. But after some of these flood events, I witnessed land-use issues that will only make things worse in the future — primarily straightening creeks, clearing their banks and cleaning out streams.

Clearing and channeling streams is not only bad for ecology. It also makes the potential for the flash flooding even worse in the future, especially for your neighbors downstream.

When you take the curves and shallows out of a stream, you are effectively creating a shoot for the water that will only make it flood faster and higher downstream. Think of your hollow as one giant funnel pointing at your neighbors.

Do you want that water to flow all at once, unimpeded? Or do you want that stream to have the breaks and balances that are built into the natural system?

It maybe counterintuitive. I understand the thought process that makes people want to dig straight ditches and drain their property as quickly as possible. But without the natural curves, deep pools and obstacles innate in mountain streams, flash flooding becomes the norm.

Now for erosion: We’ve all seen it, if not in person then on the news — the person standing on the front porch with his or her entire front yard gone.

Erosion is a natural fact of life here. But there are some things you can do to slow it down and protect your land from disappearing downstream — mainly leaving a riparian buffer zone along your creek.

Erosion is inevitable, but natural vegetation along a creek will slow the rising waters, improve water quality and maintain the bank. To any property owner I meet, I suggest at least 6 feet, preferably 10 feet, from the crest of the bank where you stop mowing and let the trees and shrubs take back over.

Mother Nature knows what she is doing, if you let her, but if you are one of the many West Virginians with a treeless creek bank that keeps eating away at your yard, here are some species you might consider planting right away along your creek to stave off erosion:

willows

sycamores

birches

silver maples

sweet gum

burr oak

buckeye

cottonwood

walnut

hazelnuts

witch hazel

spice berry bush

button bush

red twig dogwood

pussy willow

elderberry

You have lots of options. All will add interest and beauty to your yard as well as do their part to buffer you and your neighbors from rising waters.

So, as always, my advice is to set down some roots, and don’t fight with Mother Nature. She will always win.

When we mess too much with the natural ecology of our region, we are only shooting ourselves in the foot and making it harder to weather the next storm.

Alex Cole is a native of Fraziers Bottom who’s been landscaping all of his life and currently lives off the grid in a small, solar-powered cabin he built on a 217-acre farm that has been in his family for six generations. Alex has expertise in permaculture design, maintaining vegetable gardens, repairing riparian zones and creating all new perennial and pollinator gardens. Reach Alex at alexcole989@gmail.com.

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