Saving Little Topashaw:
Eroded southern creek offers lessons on
undoing years of harm to watersheds
Because of their rich diversity
and short life cycles, the
macroinvertebrates collected in
this Mississippi creek by
biologists Charles Bryant (left)
and Sam Testa are very useful
in assessing environmental
effects of stream restoration
After a 2-hour drive from the ARS
National Sedimentation Laboratory in Oxford, Mississippi, hydraulic
engineer Doug Shields and agronomist Seth Dabney don hip waders and
trudge through thick mud in a cottonfield, approaching the banks of
Little Topashaw Creek.
Swollen and brown from heavy rains, the waterway cascades violently
within its 20-foot canyon walls, rushing through a straightaway, over
a headcut, and finally up against an S-curve. "It's too rough for
going down into the stream today," says Shields. "But it's
a great day for data collection and observing."
Shields, of the Oxford laboratory's Water Quality and Ecological Processes
Research Unit, leads the Little Topashaw Creek Stream Corridor Rehabilitation
Project. This effort, which involves all the lab's units, uses a 2-mile
stretch of the creek for finding ways to make up for past abuses of
watersheds. "Studies such as this can help us find cost-effective
ways to help ecosystems recover," Shields says between rain squalls.
Hydraulic engineer Doug Shields
(left) and technician John
Massey record the location
(using GPS) and condition of
a 4-year-old large woody
debris structure in Little
Topashaw Creek in Mississippi.
He says that, like other watersheds throughout the lower Mississippi
River valley, the 10-mile-long creek has suffered accelerated channel
erosion caused by poor watershed management practices and channelizationthe
often-used practice of replacing a stream with a straight ditch.
Little Topashaw Creek is part of the Yalobusha Watershed, where ARS
is conducting extensive research. (The work is included in the new Conservation
Effects Assessment Project, which is featured in this month's Forum,
on page 2.) Shields, Dabney, ecologists Charles Cooper and Scott
Knight, hydrologist Glenn Wilson, and geologist Andrew Simon have collected
data on Little Topashaw's water quality, fish, macroinvertebrates, vascular
plants, geomorphology, and hydrology. But it's the physical changes
they have introducedlarge woody debris structures, willow cuttings
and grass hedges, and submersible pumpsthat get the most attention.
"Traditional measures for controlling streambank erosion require
costly stone or concrete structures," Shields says. "The measures
being studied here may cut such costs considerably."
Technicians Calvin Vick (left)
and John Massey measure
switchgrass stem density and
geometry at the upstream end
of a riparian gully at Little
Topashaw Creek in Mississippi.
Woody Debris and Willow Posts
In outfitting their segment of the creek with 72 debris structures,
the team sought to replicate an essential component of stream aquatic
"Large woody debris provides shelter for fish and insects, stabilizes
caving banks, and restores riparian habitats," says Shields. "But
scientifically based guidelines for its use are scarce."
Unfortunately, many of the structuresconsisting of uprooted trees
stacked in crossing layers and anchored with steel cables to the streambedhave
failed during the 3 years since they were built. "We pushed the
envelope with our design," says Shields, "but we think the
failures have led us to produce even better guidelines than if we had
achieved 100 percent success."
The structures reduce sediment transport, triggering natural deposition
to heal channels enlarged by years of erosion. Shields says they cost
about $25 per foot of treated bank, or 20 to 50 percent of the cost
of recent stone bank-stabilization projects in the region.
Biologist Duane Shaw uses
several unique morphological
characteristics to identify
one of the over 200 species
of freshwater fish found in
Meanwhile, Shields and University of Memphis wetland plant physiologist
Reza Pezeshki are studying revegetating eroded riparian streambanks
by planting dormant black willow (Salix nigra) cuttings, called
Previous greenhouse studies by ARS and Pezeshki showed that soaking
willow posts in water for 10 days before planting significantly increased
their survival and growth. In the recent research, the team planted
about 4,000 willow posts along the creek. For comparison, they also
planted cuttings that were not soaked and ones that were soaked for
"Soaking significantly enhanced plant survival during the first
year," says Shields. "Soaked posts survived at a rate of 64
percent, but only 53 percent of unsoaked posts survived." Perhaps
more importantly, soaked posts did much better under stress. "About
70 percent of soaked posts planted on drier, high banks survived,"
says Shields. "Only 40 percent of unsoaked posts survived there."
Once restored, Mississippi
streams damaged by erosion
and channel incision are capable
of supporting a rich and diverse
| Grass Hedges
Oxford researchers see two other strategies at the creekplanting
grass hedges within gullies and using submersible pumpsas complementary,
low-cost methods of stabilizing streambanks.
"Vegetative barriers are widely used to control runoff and reduce
soil erosion in cropland," says Dabney. "But they have not
been used to control deep gullies in noncropped areas." Such gullies
commonly result from floodplain farming next to incised channels. "Edge-of-field
gullies are normally controlled with drop-pipe structures composed of
a small earthen dam drained by a metal culvert," says Dabney. "These
are quite effective, but they require capital investment and eventually
Well-established grass hedges can remain erect against waterflow that
ponds to depths of up to 1.5 feet, he says. Dabney has planted switchgrass
(Panicum virgatum) in gullies along Little Topashaw because "it's
robust, it's tolerant of cold weather, and it's a native grass."
Biologist Richard Lizotte removes
water quality samples from an
automated water sampler on
Little Topashaw Creek in
Meanwhile, solar-powered pumps and gravity-driven drains are being
used to dewater and stabilize upper portions of steep streambanks subject
to rapid erosion. Bank dewatering cuts the chances of sudden bank collapse
by stabilizing weak, saturated soils and keeping water that seeps through
high banks from carrying sediment with it and creating large cavities.
"Pumps offer the alternative of actively lowering the water table,
and they're suitable in critical locations where rapid bank stabilization
or deep drainage is needed," says Simon. "Also, bank stabilization
with submerged pumps costs about $12 per foot, while stabilizing similar
banks with quarried stone costs about $90 per foot."
"Low-cost, environmentally friendly methods to stabilize incised
channels are badly needed because current techniques, though effective,
are costly," says Shields. "Also, stabilizing incising channels
and their stream corridors can have major positive ecological effects,
particularly when the methods are designed to help restore habitat for
fish and wildlife."
Chemist James Hill (left)
and technician Jennifer Swint
process water samples collected
from field sites for pesticide
More information about Little Topashaw is available at msa.ars.usda.gov/ms/oxford/nsl/wqe_unit/topashaw.html.By
Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Water Quality and Management, an ARS National
Program (#201) described on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Fletcher Douglas Shields,
Jr., is with the USDA-ARS National
Sedimentation Laboratory, Water Quality and Ecological Processes
Research Unit, P.O. Box 1157, 598 McElroy Dr., Oxford, MS 38655; phone
(662) 232-2919, fax (662) 232-2988.
"Saving Little Topashaw" was published in the May
2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.