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The Three Rivers: Levee Management

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Biohabitats
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Fort Wayne has some grand plans for riverfront development. The City says the first step is to work on riparian buffers – specific areas of plants and soil along the river banks. This land, along with other rocky areas that separate the city from the water, create levees.

But not a lot is known about how to comprehensively improve the levees and environment along the rivers - yet.

We continues our series "The Three Rivers" by examining the current states of our levees, what practices are used to manage them, and how they could change.

 

The City of Fort Wayne has a pretty good idea of the current state of downtown river shorelines. That’s thanks to a commissioned report released last summer by the consulting group Biohabitats.

It finds that even along the same river, conditions vary a lot –from expansive natural areas like marshes and forests, to highly engineered flood walls.

Why?

"There's a balance that has to go into it." says Patrick Zaharako. He's Assistant City Engineer and Flood Control Manager. He says different surfaces along the banks serve different purposes, but  “the first priority is the protection and the safety of all the people behind the levee.” 

That’s why flood prevention dictates some of the practices on the levees. The City follows standards issued by the Army Corps of Engineers and some other federal guidelines.

The City uses what’s called rip-rap, basically rocks, along steeper banks to prevent erosion. Some environmental groups don’t like it, because it can’t hold vegetation, and gets sprayed with chemicals. But Zaharako says they’re sprayed well within EPA guidelines.

Standards also direct that dead trees and other vegetation gets removed, and tall grasses mowed.

“If it’s natural we let it continue to grow in its natural state," says Zaharako. "We are not going out and actively monitoring all the species throughout all the levee, we just want to make sure that it’s maintained.” 

“On many stretches of the river, you’ll find a lot of invasives,” says Celia Garza of the grassroots organization Save Maumee. 

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Credit Biohabitats
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Cottonwood is one of only three prominent species of trees growing in Fort Wayne's riparian area. These trees emerging from rip-rap been damaged by beavers.

Her group already knew what the Biohabitats report found – that a few very troublesome invasive species cover pretty much the entire ground level of vegetated levees. The report also found those areas are often too narrow to provide any ecological benefit, and natural diversity is severely lacking, among other problems.

Garza says her group removes some invasives - others they’re just not equipped to.

Save Maumee says riparian vegetation shouldn’t be overlooked for its water filtering abilities.

“I think that the more money these cities have to spend to clean the water," says Garza, "the more attention it gets on a policy sense, and I’ve seen that a lot in the last few years.” 

But a lot of that change has been downstream of us, where they’ve dealt with major issues affecting drinking water. Garza says the City of Fort Wayne should pay a little more attention to vegetation. Zaharako says they do some planting, but only when there’s a critical erosion problem.

Volunteer-based Save Maumee is taking on the issue themselves, planting pounds of seeds some years. A lot of what they plant is harvested from Eagle Marsh and Fox Island in Fort Wayne.

With the City’s riverfront study nearly complete and so-called grand vision revealed, Mayor Tom Henry recently announced first steps will be maintenance and repair along river banks.

Pam Holocher and her team are still figuring out just how to go about that effort. Holocher is Project Coordinator for the riverfront development study.

She says Biohabitats recommended a comprehensive riparian management plan for the areas along the rivers.

“Hopefully, what we hope to get," says Holocher, "is that for every specific area, there’s actually an action plan, and then those action plan pieces are prioritized, and then there’ll be a specific cost associated with what needs to be done in that area.”

Holocher is hoping for some progressive solutions. The plan hasn’t been contracted out yet, and work couldn’t start till spring. Actual change is still a while off, and will be limited to study area of the riverfront plan.

But for all the problems Biohabitats found, they also found that lots of areas have potential for restoration and wildlife management.

In terms of levee management, Patrick Zaharako anticipates lots of change within his and other departments - eventually.

“It’ll probably take us years if not decades to get through this, and see where we can fully manage and maintain a good ecological system in the end,” says Zaharako.

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