Shavers Fork stream restoration project wrapping up
The Shavers Fork stream restoration project in Slaty Fork is at the tail-end of its construction phase.
According to Heather Stiller, geologist and junior inspector with AMEC, the project is designed to rebuild trout habitat. She said it's a simple concept — they're basically just putting rocks in a stream she said jokingly — but there's a little more to it than that.
“When you alter a stream, it's going to have some kind of effect somewhere farther downstream,” explained Stiller. “What we're doing is changing the shape of the stream, but it should have a “net-balance of zero” — where it doesn't do anything farther downstream.”
Stiller said the structures being installed along the four-and-a-half to five-mile stretch of Shavers Fork will make the stream deeper and more narrow. She said the pools that were dug will provide cooler, deeper water for fish. Stiller said trout spawn in some of the tributaries around Shavers Fork, but the idea is to get them to spawn in the stream again.
“Shavers Fork was one of the streams that they used to float logs down,” Stiller said. “When they were doing a lot of the logging, they dynamited a lot of the big rocks and changed the structure of the stream. Then the railroad came in and altered the stream a little bit, too.”
Stiller said stream restoration is starting to become a pretty big industry, despite being a relatively newer science and engineering practice.
Stiller explained how some of the stream structures affect the overall flow in Shavers Fork.
“A lot of designers like to use wood structures in the stream, but Shavers Fork has significant ice-flow, so we wanted to use rock structures that would hold up better,” she said.
Stiller said “single-wing deflectors” were installed to narrow the flow and collect deposition to help grow and stabilize the stream banks. “J-hooks” were used to help bring flow back into the center of the stream to protect the edges of the banks. Woody debris pulled from the surrounding forest, and boulder clusters of native sandstone help form riffles in hopes of attracting trout.
Stiller said there are a lot of parties involved in the project. The headwaters of Shavers Fork are up at Snowshoe, so part of the funding came from the resort — but Stiller's employer, AMEC was hired by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“They are the designers of this project,” she said. “They hired AMEC to be the inspectors on-site during construction. Then, our contractors — the folks that are doing the actual work and building the structures — is North State Environmental, out of North Carolina.”
Stiller said the six man team from North State has been great to work with.
“North State is one of the best in the business when it comes to stream construction. They're considered some of the best because they're efficient and they know what they're doing. The initial project, when it was first bid, was supposed to take three-to-five years. When North State won the bid, they said they could do it in less than a year. They finished construction last week — our surveyors came out and did a survey, and then we just have to do a final walk through with the clients,” she said.
Stiller has been working for AMEC for going on two years now. She went to Indiana University to study geology, but she said the project at Shaves Fork has very little to do with her geology background — her role is more geared toward construction oversight.
“I can count rocks and I can read plans,” joked Stiller. “I'm here to make sure the contractors are following the plans, that we agree on any field-changes, and make sure everything is installed correctly.”
According to Stiller, AMEC is an engineering consulting company with offices worldwide. She said she enjoys working for them in their Louisville, Kentucky office. She never knows what she'll be doing day-to-day and she works mostly outside.
One of the more exciting aspects of the Shavers Fork restoration project is the 30-minute commute to work. The project site is only accessible by foot or by rail, so Stiller and her co-workers drive to Mace in a specially modified pick-up truck equipped with a Hy-Rail system. Once they carefully line the truck up with the rail lines, she manually activates the Hy-Rail system using a sort-of oversized crowbar.
“Basically it's just a Chevy Silverado with Hy-Rail gear attached to it, like a hybrid. We rented this twenty miles of rail line so we can come in and out from the project site,” she said.
Once the truck is positioned on the rails, the steering wheel is locked down, and the driver controls the vehicle's speed using the traditional accelerator and braking system. Passengers keep their seat belts off and the doors unlocked in case they need to quickly bail out, though Stiller said the chances of that are minimal since they're the only people ever on the line. It can still be dangerous though — they've de-railed before and she said it tore up the truck pretty bad. Falling rocks on the line can also be a hazard when they ride the rails, especially with the recent freezes.
Stiller said it's a relaxing ride to the project site, and they see all kinds of cool stuff. Trains from Cass in the distance chugging past to Whittaker Station, the old town of Spruce is only a few miles from their jobsite, and they see all sorts of wildlife.
“We've seen bear run across the track, a lot of deer, a lot of grouse, turkey, and lots of bald eagles lately,” she said. “During bear hunting season we come across a lot of dogs, we just collect them up and call the owner.”
Stiller said the crew can already see a difference in the water levels along Shavers Fork.
“During the summer it was a lot lower,” recalled Stiller. “A couple weeks ago when we had some of those bigger rains, the water was up to the bank — where it should be. Eventually the stream will get to this point naturally, we're just getting it there faster.”