The Story Behind the Chamberlain Farms Streambank Project

This article is part of Genesee RiverWatch’s 2020 Year-End Appeal series – telling the stories behind our significant accomplishments.

Most Western New Yorkers are aware that our beautiful Finger Lakes Region and Genesee River Valley are products of glaciers that last visited this area 10,000 years ago.  In addition to scouring out the Finger Lakes and raising our many drumlin ridges, these glaciers left a legacy of fertile soils in the Genesee River Valley.  While wonderful for farming, these loose soils are easily eroded by the Genesee and its tributary streams.  The result is an annual loss of 422,000 tons of farmable soil, the release of 455 tons of algae-causing phosphorus, and millions of dollars yearly in sediment dredging costs at the Mt. Morris Dam, Rochester Harbor channel and private marinas – not to mention the aesthetic cost of a sediment-filled river flowing through our civic center.

Since its inception, Genesee RiverWatch has focused on improving water quality by restoring stream banks and establishing riparian zones to preserve valuable farmland and reduce the sediment flowing downstream.  Our 2015 study of the river in Allegany County identified and prioritized those areas with the worst erosion problems.  In 2018 and 2019 we completed two major projects near Belfast and Fillmore, New York that stabilized 2,900 feet of bank and stopped the loss of 1.1 acres of farmland per year.  Federal Great Lakes grants totaling $352K and farmer in-kind work of $79K paid for permitting and construction.  RiverWatch-funded staff and volunteers identified the target areas, engaged the landowners, developed cost estimates for the projects and prepared the grant applications.

In 2017, RiverWatch staff began discussions with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the New York State Department of Conservation – trustees of the Kodak Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Settlement fund.  At their request, we prepared a list of potential project sites from the Allegany County study that would meet their funding criteria.  Site visits and detailed discussions followed.  Out of this process, a 2,720’ stretch of riverbank near the confluence of the Genesee River and Angelica Creek was chosen.  Restoring and stabilizing this site will stop erosion which exceeds 0.5 acres annually.

Past Genesee streambank projects have been accomplished by grading back vertical banks and lining them with boulders to prevent high water currents from scouring away the soil.  For this project USF&WS chose to employ a technique called a “toe-wood structure”.  In this process, large trees are placed at river bottom level and crisscrossed to form an inter-linked structure with the root wads pointed outward into the river current.  Earth is backfilled over this assembly in two “bench” levels that are held in place by grass and tree plantings.  (See photos below)  In the case of the Chamberlain project, three sloping rock “vanes” were added to further direct flow to the river channel and away from the banks.  Among other advantages, toe-wood projects improve habitat for fish and other aquatic life and provide a more natural appearance than rock-hardened structures.

In executing the project, Genesee RiverWatch was responsible for landowner relations, required archeological studies, obtaining the government agency permits, restoration planting and post-construction monitoring.  USF&WS managed the detailed engineering and construction phases.

Ground was broken on the site during the week of July 20, 2020.  Construction continued through early September and work for the year ended with the planting of 9,000 willow stakes and riparian seed mix at the top of the bank in mid-November.

This valuable work will continue in 2021 with an 1,800’ streambank restoration project in Houghton, New York that will begin in the summer and a 1,300’ restoration/boat launch undertaking that has been submitted for grant funding, also in 2021.

Help us with this work as well as our river access improvement, public outreach, and education initiatives in 2021.  Please consider investing $100, $250 – or an amount of your choosing – in Genesee RiverWatch as a part of your year-end giving plan.

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