Consider the beaver; the large, wet, mostly nocturnal pancaked-tail rodent.
On Wednesday – for the first time in 40 years – David Wicks saw two “fat” beavers living right below the Beargrass Creek Pump Station.
Wicks leads canoe and kayak tours along Beargrass Creek for students and city leaders alike, showing them the realities of Kentucky’s largest urban stream. (Transparency note: I too, took this trip with Wicks once.)
Way back 150 years ago, the city used the creek as an open sewer. Slaughterhouses tossed pig parts in it until it ran red and engineers installed three miles of concrete to help stem the spread of diseases like typhoid.
Taking the long arc of history, Beargrass Creek is cleaner than it has ever been.
Still, runoff from the city fills the creek with pollution as flash flooding erodes the creek’s banks. Overflowing sewage and stormwater still empties into the waterway damaging water quality and degrading habitat.
Just last year, a leaking sewer line suffocated hundreds of fish in the creek.
“Let’s think about those beavers. What beaver would like to swim around this filth that’s in Beargrass Creek?” Wicks said.
Is Beargrass clean enough for these beavers? Are they on a beaver road trip along the Ohio River? Maybe they’re trash-loving beavers related to Oscar the Grouch.
A new study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Sewer District will consider the beavers, and more importantly, Beargrass Creek as a whole.
The three forks of Beargrass Creek – the south fork, middle fork and muddy fork – wind through Middletown, Jeffersontown and Louisville communities to a confluence with the Ohio River. On its way, the creek meanders through neighborhoods, parks and businesses amassing runoff and garbage.
Lots of garbage: plastic bottles, Styrofoam containers, tires, clothes, tents, doors and at least one engine block.
This study will not be the first to consider the creek. Not the second or third either. Or the fourth. Or fifth. Wicks said it’s actually the seventh study looking at Beargrass Creek. But Wicks is also a little more hopeful this time around.
The three-year, $3 million feasibility study is only one of a half dozen similar projects across the United States and is the only ecosystem restoration projection nationwide. The Army Corps program is the same one used to restore the Everglades and the Los Angeles River.
“You know when you get Congress to say ‘Yes this is one of six studies across the entire United States, the only one focused on urban watersheds,’ it tends to have a little bit more oomph,” Wicks said.
Army Corps Project Lead Andrew Reed said the study will look through “all of the possibilities” to restore Beargrass Creek.
Biologists, engineers, economists and real estate specialists will be brought in for their expertise. They’ll consider how to best manage the creek’s flow, water quality and ecosystems.
They’ll consider climate adaptation strategies to make the urban creek more resilient in the face of warming-induced flash flooding.
And they’ll meet with private landowners to consider ways to perhaps widen the stream, create wetlands and create riparian buffers.
They’ll also consider the critters, from the small invertebrates to bucktooth rodents.
“It’s about restoring native habitat for birds and bats and amphibians and fish. We are really looking at diversifying the types of habitat in Beargrass Creek,” Reed said.
But the study is only the first step, the final plan will need to be authorized by Congress. The earliest that could happen is in 2022.
In the meantime, consider the beaver.