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Posted 3/24/2017

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By Sara Corbett

What do the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a grocery store, and Clemson University have in common? Usually, nothing but, in this unusual situation, mitigation is the common factor.

In 2011, a grocery store applied for a permit with the Corps. The impacts would be filling .41 acres of wetlands and 237 linear feet of stream, which meant the store would be required to comply with the Corps’ compensatory mitigation program. The goal of mitigation is for a property owner to restore, establish, enhance or preserve other aquatic resources in order to replace those impacted by the proposed project in order to achieve zero net loss of wetlands.

However, since there were no mitigation banks available in the same area at the time, the applicant had to get creative by finding their own permittee-responsible mitigation site. The applicant worked with a contractor who set-up a site on Hunnicutt Creek. This created a win-win solution because Clemson was already using Hunnicutt Creek as an outdoor classroom to teach undergraduate and graduate students about watersheds and stream restoration.

“This is a very unique mitigation site because Hunnicutt Creek is being studied for mitigation purposes as well as for educational purposes,” said Brice McKoy, Regulatory Division NW Chief. “This project helps us protect waters of the U.S. and promote STEM to students with the hopes of igniting a passion in science.”

To protect waters of the U.S., the Corps uses a watershed approach when reviewing permit applications. Watersheds are areas of land where water from rain, snow, or ice can drain to a common waterway such as a creek, stream, lake, wetland, or, eventually, the ocean. Since streams and creeks feed into watersheds, stream restoration projects, such as Hunnicutt Creek, are vital to keeping watersheds healthy and functioning properly. Several small, separate projects can significantly impact water quality and aquatic resources within a watershed, so the effects of the project on the entire watershed are considered when making a permit decision.

“This project provides a tangible asset in which students can explore the physical and biological processes associated with stream restoration,” said Calvin Sawyer, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural Sciences. “It also introduces them to the regulatory process and what role the Corps plays in ensuring protection of the functions and values of streams, wetland systems and watersheds.”

Rebeckah Hollowell is currently obtaining her master’s degree at Clemson in Plant and Environmental Sciences. She has been working on the mitigation project at Hunnicutt Creek since the fall of 2014 and is using it as her thesis. Hollowell has always been drawn to environmental permitting and mitigation, so she jumped at the chance to work on Hunnicutt Creek where she could be part of a mitigation project that was happening in the “real world.” Once she graduates, she hopes to work for the Corps or an environmental agency.

“Since working on Hunnicutt Creek and with the Corps, I am much more interested in going into this line of work,” said Hollowell. “I want to make a difference and there is so much advancement that can be achieved in this STEM field, especially on the restoration side of things.”

The mitigated portion of the restoration at the creek was completed in 2013 and included the enhancement of two acres of wetlands and the restoration of 300 linear feet of streams. The Corps has specific performance standards the applicant has to meet such as the amount of native trees planted, buffers being used and the completed work staying in place. Students at Clemson help the Corps by monitoring the creek for not only these standards, but also for chemical qualities (pH, temperature, conductivity, and dissolved oxygen), bacteria (E.coli), macroinvertebrates, native plant species and amphibians. By using the deterioration and restoration of the creek as an educational tool, Clemson is teaching and reinforcing the Corps’ main regulatory mission; conservation, restoration and stabilization of the environment.

“The partnership between Clemson and the Corps has been very productive and beneficial,” said Sawyer. “We’ve had to rely on the Corps to communicate with the permittee on several occasions to achieve an equitable solution. The Corps has been flexible in their advice and counsel to Clemson and in how they make their permit-related decisions.”

Over the last few years, the students have seen positive results in the restored portion of the creek, one unique improvement is an increase in amphibians. Students set up coverboards and PVC pipes next to the creek and monitor those sites as a way to gauge if the restoration is successful. The amphibian increase shows that the environment is becoming more hospitable and returning to its natural state.

“Amphibians and tree frogs can be used as bioindicators,” said Brett Kelly, senior biology major. “Typically these species are sensitive to pollution, or poor water quality, so we are encouraged by their presence in the restoration area. This means that the restored area is giving the frogs all of the resources they need to survive and thrive.”

While it’s not possible to gather an exact count, the students have observed 71 green tree frogs over the course of 15 samples in the restored section and only one green tree frog in the unrestored sections that were surveyed.

The Corps will monitor the mitigation site for five years after the project is complete, but Clemson University will continue monitoring the progress and restoration of Hunnicutt Creek for years to come.

You can keep up with the restoration project here: http://www.clemson.edu/public/hunnicutt/index.html