Today, a half century after the massive civil-engineering project took place to dig a new channel for the Hocking River’s path through Athens, many people take it for granted. Yet, the variety of current interest groups involved with river now have a more nuanced and environmentally conscious perspective than they might have in 1969-71.
To new Ohio University students, the Hocking River that flows gently along the edge of campus may seem normal, even a bit sterile. To most, the river walk along the bike path is just that — a river walk. But to many older natives of Athens, the Hocking River that flows through the city, along its mainly treeless banks, is not the same river from their own distant memories.
In 1969, in response to floods that wreaked havoc on the OU campus and Athens community in 1964 and 1968, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) begam moving a portion of the Hocking River to a new channel skirting around campus, where it has flowed ever since, according to the Hocking Conservancy District (HCD) website.
The project, completed in 1971, included not only the wholesale shifting of nearly five miles of the river stretch through Athens, but also included realignment and straightening parts of the river – all to prevent flooding in Athens, according to the HCD website. Nobody disputes the fact that many millions of dollars in damages have been saved due to this project.
The most immediately noticeable difference is on OU’s West Green. Routine flooding of the Hocking no longer plagues the residential green. The original course of the river before ’71 is now a glorified drainage ditch with a few ponds and even several campus buildings.
Several university buildings – most notably, Baker Center, the Life Science Center, Walter Hall and Clippinger Hall – have since been built in the former riverbank or on the dried-up floodplain adjacent to the now diverted Hocking.
David Humphreys, former Inspection of Completed Works (ICW) program manager at the Huntington (W.Va.) District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the channel has been effective at the set goal of reducing the risk of out-of-bank flooding events, but it no longer reflects what the Corps would do today.
“Does the project as it was constructed currently provide flood-risk protection to Athens? I would say certainly yes,” Humphreys said. “Would it be something we would build at Athens today if we reformulated that project and started from scratch? Probably not.”
Humphreys cited the Corps’ increased awareness and desire for stewardship of the natural resources connected with waterways as a key factor in the contemporary philosophical approach to civil engineering along rivers and streams.
“(Channelization) projects aren’t something that are used (as much now) in the arsenal of flood-risk protection for any agency, much less the Corps,” Humphreys said. “ It’s not that they’ve gone out of vogue, but we’ve become more appreciative to the aquatic habitat.”
Humphreys described how the channelized portion of the Hocking in Athens was constructed just before 1970s when the modern environmental awareness movement began holding more sway in public policy. When the project was completed in 1971, the federal EPA was just celebrating its first anniversary.
Now, Humphreys said the Corps of Engineers receives assistance from a variety of stakeholders, including EPAs and natural resource departments in the states where the Corp operates, who provide input on the need for future projects.
“It’s not just the Corps. When we formulate a project, or begin to plan or think about what would be an appropriate flood-reduction project, we embrace a number of stakeholders,” Humphreys said. “It’s not just our own expertise; we have stakeholders from other agencies that would comment on our projects, and we would be required to have their blessing or consensus to proceed.”
THE HOCKING CONSERVANCY District is the local sponsor for the Huntington District of the Corps of Engineers. The HCD, based in Athens, is tasked with maintaining the channel to ensure it meets Corps regulations as a civil project.
The HCD hires one or two seasonal workers who are tasked with maintenance of the river channel and riverbank including dredging the riverbed with an excavator, mowing the banks, and other general maintenance tasks.
He said dredging is vital to ensure that water passes through the channel as fast as possible. Sandbar buildups caused by sedimentation can slow the water flow as it passes through the channel.
“It’s not the amount of water you can hold,” Holdcroft said; it’s the fact that you want to get
that water through town as quickly as possible. You can’t do that with sediment, vegetation, trees and brush up in the channel.”
However, Holdcroft said that ultimately his agency is only able to dredge a few times a year, on account of a variety of factors, including water level and rain frequency.
The HCD operates under permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a permit that is not easy to get, according to Holdcroft.
He said the Conservancy District is required to hold numerous meetings with state and federal officials, and must abide by numerous rules and regulations, such as not interrupting spawning season for river wildlife such as fish. They must also be aware of endangered species as they dredge.
Holdcroft described the process of dredging as “giving a sandbar a haircut,” a process he said means the equipment is never supposed to disturb the water.
However, the HCD ultimately must subordinate environmental concerns to protecting against the imminent flooding risk the Hocking can pose to the city of Athens, Holdcroft said.
Even flowing within the “new” channel, the Hocking does pose a flooding risk, sometimes more than once a year. In the past few years, it has risen above flood stage several times, though there’s been no catastrophic flooding in Athens.
“We’re not necessarily charged with being the most environmentally friendly place in the world,” Holdcroft said. “The channel is not designed to be an environmentally friendly-made project; it’s not natural – nothing about it is natural.”
Humphreys, in his former position as the Corps’ ICW project manager, surveyed and inspected the Athens stretch of the river previously, and found it to be a lower risk in the Hocking River basin than other projects. In the years Humpreys inspected the completed project to ensure that the HCD upheld its charter, he found the district to be operating according to code and procedure.
“I found the Hocking Conservancy District was an attentive sponsor at all turns and at all junctures to abide by the project maintenance manual at Athens,” Humphreys said.
TIM TRAXLER, HISTORIC PRESERVATION advocate and longtime construction contractor, lived in Athens before the river was rerouted.
“I was here when there were floods,” Traxler recalled. “And certainly they were affecting the university and part of the city, because they were building on the floodplains.”
He said at the time of the rechannelization project, he opposed the project, which he calls “the Hocking ditch.” He said he was concerned about the loss of the natural landscape and portions of the grounds of the old Athens Asylum (later known as the Mental Health Center and The Ridges).
“Back in the day, people weren’t asking the right kinds of questions,” Traxler said. “And the people who were, were kind of marginalized.”
Traxler said he recalls a conversation he had with an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a party in Marietta, Ohio, many years ago (but after the river had been rechanneled).
During the conversation, Traxler recalled, they came to discuss the rerouting of the Hocking in Athens.
“His comment to me was ‘If we had to do it all over again, we wouldn’t have done it,’” Traxler said.
GRADUATE STUDENT JASMINE Facun during a walk with this reporter along the river late this spring pointed to the unmowed strip of tall grasses and tree saplings along the bike path between OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital and the university baseball fields.
“Things can live here,” she said.
She then pointed at the freshly mowed turf grass that dominates most of the embankment along the Hocking River in Athens.
“There isn’t a whole lot living here,” she said, running her feet through the short grass closest to the bike trail.
Facun is an environmental sciences graduate student at Ohio University, working on her thesis – studying the benefits of rehabilitating the riparian area of the Hocking in Athens, using prairie restoration techniques.
Facun, who also works at OU’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, said she’s determined to see if there’s any merit in middle-ground prairie techniques, as HCD regulations prohibit the planting of trees or other larger riparian brush.
For the past three years, she has been cultivating grassland growths in three locations along the river – with the segment along the bike path by O’Bleness the most visible segment.
The HCD has agreed not to mow her set-aside portions of the riparian area so she can study the effects of prairie restoration.
Her intention is to create an area that would still offer resistance to flooding, but also allow some of the native fauna to return to the riverbanks. At her sample areas one can see a wide diversity of tall grasses and tree saplings; honeybees happily buzz about through the strip.
A return of pollinators – such as bees and butterflies – is essential to the health of the ecosystem, Facun said.
“It would only serve us to make sure pollinators are getting the quality habitat they need,” Facun said.
She added that the mowed grass area only leaves clovers – many of which have been chopped up by the mowers — for the bees to collect pollen from.
However, she did acknowledge the potential risks associated with restoration — increased vulnerability to flooding, unwanted tree growth and invasive species.
“We do still have the flood concern here, so we can’t let this go back to the natural river; that’s not going to happen, and that’s not what I’m proposing,” Facun said. “Maybe there’s some sort of happy medium where we can establish some sort of quality habitat.
“I don’t want anything I propose to increase flooding potential – I live here too,” Facun added.
She noted that restoring trees to the riparian area can cause the water to slow down and get clogged up behind a root network, and that the tree roots could disturb the spoil embankment (the levy-like wall along the river constructed using the dredged earth pulled up during the initial project) as it was constructed by the Corp of Engineers.
“Although flooding can be mitigated by a dense network of trees, the opposite can be true in a heavily channelized area such as this one,” Facun said. “In a natural ecosystem, healthy riparian vegetation is seen as something that hinders flooding. That’s a hydrological problem rather than an ecological one.”
However, she noted that just letting smaller plants to grow unchecked also can allow invasive species to take root along the riparian. Particularly, honeysuckle, Japanese knotweed – even the turf grass that grows along the riverbanks – are common invasive species that take root in disrupted areas.
Invasive species have a competitive advantage to native plants, as the former are not susceptible to local diseases or predators.
“That’s the question,” Facun said. “What would happen if we stopped mowing? You probably can’t stop mowing, and leave it unmanaged. Is it better to have (invasive species) than turf grass?”
While Facun is considering alternative riparian conditions, the Corps of Engineers’ Humphreys said turf grass is ultimately the best coverage for the constructed earth levy.
“Sod is the best cover we have found for levies,” he said “We like a nice sod cover because it’s going to give you a dense root net.”
Despite this, he said it’s possible for environmentalism and civil engineering to intersect, through the principle of natural stream design.
“We’re trying to balance and provide for oxygenated water so the macro-invertebrates and the fishes and natural riparian life forms have a spot in a relocated channel or channelized channel through natural stream design,” Humphreys said.
As the Corps of Engineers continues to develop the science of civil engineering, the essence of Facun’s project has managed to find a place in Corps policy.
“It’s rare that we would cut a (channelized portion of the river) today, and leave it as sterile as we would have years ago,” Humphreys said. “It’s been a maturing science, and understanding, and appreciation of not disrupting the natural order.”
Editor’s note: An abridged version of this article will appear Sunday in the summer magazine of The New Political, a student-run online publication at Ohio University.