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Appalachian Watershed Research Group begins second year of Pennsylvania stream restoration project

Rachael Beardsley
April 29, 2021

Ohio University’s Appalachian Watershed Research Group is entering the second year of work on the Robinson Fork and Ryerson Station State Park Mitigation Assessment project, which focuses on providing unbiased third-party research to better understand a new large-scale restoration method implemented in a western Pennsylvania watershed. The AWRG is an interdisciplinary cross-campus collaboration lead by Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs faculty and professionals.

Team members are observing a watershed restoration method, which addresses erosion and its effects on the landscape. Historic land use throughout the watershed caused extensive erosion in headwater streams, leading to the loss of water storage. The restored streams slow down water, resulting in a slower rate of erosion and proper distribution of sediment and nutrients.

“Our OHIO team is evaluating whether the restoration method is meeting its main goals,” said Nicole Kirchner, environmental specialist at the Voinovich School and one of the co-investigators for the project. “We're assessing different parameters that will help to answer that question, such as the hydrology, the biology and the hydroengineering of the restored sites.”

Ohio University researchers with varied specializations are observing the effects of the restoration method. The project includes principal investigators Natalie Kruse Daniels, Kelly Johnson and Kim Miller and co-investigators Nicole Kirchner, Jen Bowman and Nora Sullivan. Graduate students Ashlee Widener, Annika Gurrola, Jonathan Viti and Jacob South are also involved with the project, as well as undergraduate students Jordan Pazol and Korri Basinger. Partners on the project include Resource Environmental Solutions, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. 

Widener, a second year graduate student in the biological sciences department, is writing her thesis on how the restoration efforts at Robinson-Ryerson effects biological communities such as periphyton, macroinvertebrates and fish.

“I have always been interested in stream restoration, particularly the impact it has on biological communities, and this project has given me firsthand experience into the process,” Widener said. “I've learned a lot about the water chemistry sampling process and the work that goes into sampling flow, sediment and pore water. I am extremely thankful that I have gotten the opportunity to work with an incredible team of people on this restoration project!”

Gurrola, a Master of Science in Environmental Studies candidate, is studying the impact of the floodplain reconnection method on sedimentation and nutrient cycling.

“We are hoping to find that the restored streams are storing water, sediment, and nutrients better than those that are unrestored,” Gurrola said.

Pazol, a senior in the Honors Tutorial College’s Environmental Studies program, is writing his undergraduate thesis on how the restoration methods used in the Pennsylvania watersheds have impacted storm response in area streams. He said that stream restoration methods have been standardized since the 1990s, mostly focusing on the stream’s physical characteristics rather than its function.

“If we find that this new method is effective, it could be deployed a lot more widely and would likely be an improvement on current widespread methods,” he said. “We want to maximize biodiversity and make it so the stream will last in its restored state for hundreds of years.”

The project also aims to create non-eroding stream-wetland complexes that were more common long ago, before watersheds were timbered and settled by development. The project potentially redefines what we mean by ‘restored’ to a condition that is relatively uncommon now, but may have been widespread 200 years ago. These stream-wetland systems not only store water and capture sediments, nutrients and carbon, but they also provide a rich mosaic of habitats for supporting aquatic biodiversity.

“The work and dedication of our student, staff and faculty team has begun to answer questions about how the restored sites function and opened new questions to explore in year two,” Natalie Kruse Daniels said. “We look forward to continued investigation to explore how the hydrology, nutrients and sediments behave and how that connects to the goals of restoration.”