Stream Restoration Success in Slabcamp: Reflections from 10 Years Post-Restoration

Release Date: Jun 24, 2022

Contact(s): Mary O'Malley

Winchester, KY, June 24, 2022 - Ten years ago, Slabcamp Creek, located in Rowan County, Kentucky, more closely resembled a drainage ditch than a healthy waterway. The twists and turns of the stream that provide diverse habitat and slow the flow of water today were confined to a single, straight, swift moving channel. The lush riparian zone that fills the base of the valley and filters the stream of sediment was nowhere to be seen among the neat checkboard of fields and farmland.

Ten years ago, Slabcamp Creek was a textbook example of the impacts European pioneers had on the landscape; a deeply gouged, unnaturally straight, and rapidly flowing channel prone to dangerous and sediment-heavy flooding.

Artificially straightened streams are a common sight across the state of Kentucky. Early European pioneers, eager to plant and farm in the rich, silty soil at the base of valleys, redirected naturally flowing streams to lie flush along the edge of valley bottoms. These straightened waterways opened additional land to farming, logging, and other early industry, but came with a cost.

“Streams and other small waterways serve a variety of roles in a landscape,” said Daniel Boone National Forest Soil Scientist Claudia Cotton. “In addition to providing habitat, the stream banks and surrounding marshy areas, called the riparian zone, serve as a sponge that filters the water of contaminants and silt. This zone and the meandering nature of natural streams also help disperse and slow the flow of water so that flood events cause minimal impact to the landscape. When you manually straighten a stream, you lose all of that. You cut its connection to the floodplain, to the riparian zone, and to the rest of the ecosystem.”

Without those connections, streams are less resilient to changing climate conditions and extreme weather events. Periods of heavy precipitation may lead to extensive and damaging flooding of the same sections that dry out completely in the summer months. Slabcamp Creek was often hard hit by flooding which washed away stream crossings, eroded streambanks, and degraded stream habitat. These legacy impacts prompted the Daniel Boone National Forest to pursue partnerships with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the Kentucky Division of Water, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the Louisville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the University of Louisville Stream Institute to conduct stream restoration along Slabcamp Creek.

“We took the concept of restoration literally,” said Cotton. “We didn’t want to simply put the stream back where it was. Rather, we wanted to restore the entire floodplain ecosystem, including the stream channel, the riparian zone, and all the hydrological and biological functions that Slabcamp Creek lost after its historic straightening.”

Restoration of Slabcamp Creek began with a detailed assessment of the biologic, hydrologic, and geomorphic conditions, which served as the foundation for planning. Field studies revealed that the original floodplain, complete with a viable seedbank, had been buried up to 10 feet below the surface by sediment from hillside logging and farming. The team, which included engineers from the University of Louisville Stream Institute, used this data and hydrodynamic modeling to design an interconnected stream and floodplain ecosystem that would extend up to 50 ft across the valley bottom. With plans in place, they excavated the area to reveal the original floodplain and restore the stream.

“Stream restoration is messy work,” said Cotton. “When soil and sediment have built up, when you have forests and fields instead of a marshy riparian zone, you know that you’re going to have a couple of months where it looks like a bomb went off. But, after replanting the area with native trees, we leaned in to the ugly and chose to keep reseeding to minimum – just enough annual forbs and grasses to prevent soil erosion - to give the original seedbank a chance to germinate and bring back the species lost after the stream was straightened.”

Today, Slabcamp Creek is a healthy, free-flowing stream that supports a vibrant floodplain ecosystem. According to monitoring by the Kentucky Division of Water, Slabcamp Creek is now one of the most diverse new wetlands in eastern Kentucky with more than 100 naturally regenerating species of native plants. Native grasses, sedges and rushes have regenerated to join existing stands of mature trees in providing habitat for species ranging from aquatic insects, fish and amphibians to bats, beaver, and otters.

“In the ten years since restoration completed, Slabcamp Creek has never stopped flowing. Prior to restoration, the stream dried out during late summer and fall but it now supports aquatic communities year-round,” said Mike Croasdaile, Geomorphologist for the University of Louisville Stream Institute. “The constant flow of water through the valley supports a stream and floodplain ecosystem that is much more resilient to a changing climate and stressors like droughts and floods.”

This restoration project has served as an example of integrated stream and wetland design for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stream restoration workshops throughout the southeastern U.S. The project was also recognized with a Natural Resource Honors Award by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service’s Southern Regional Forester.

“We are excited to see the entire valley flourishing and the successful regeneration of native plant species and reemergence of wildlife,” said Cotton. “We hope that we can replicate our stream restoration success here at Slabcamp in other hard-hit floodplain ecosystems across the Forest.”

Since completing restoration work at Slabcamp Creek, the Daniel Boone National Forest has completed restoration activities at Elisha Creek in Leslie County and the East Fork of Indian Creek in Menifee County and begun restoration activities at Stonecoal Branch in Rowan County.

Learn more about stream restoration efforts in Kentucky by visiting the University of Louisville Stream Institute.