Before and Now: a work in progress

Photos by Brett Nachtigall/Fall River County Herald-Star

The City of Hot Springs is currently in the midst of a “native waterway restoration project” along a stretch of Fall River, which will eventually go from Minnekahta Avenue and south, to just past University Avenue. The photo above on the left is how the river appeared in August 2020, from the walking bridge in front City Hall looking north. On right is how the same area looked this past Monday, April 11, 2022. The first phase of the project began last year and addressed the cattails from Jennings Avenue to an area near the Centennial Park stage. Late last month, the next phase began and went north from there to Kidney Springs.

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Opponents of river project voice concerns at council meeting

By Brett Nachtigall

Publisher

HOT SPRINGS – Late last month, crews with the City of Hot Springs began the next phase of their Fall River native waterway restoration project as they built a ramp down to the river in Centennial Park and then mechanically removed the cattails from where last year’s project stopped. This phase of the project, from Centennial Park to the Minnekahta Avenue bridge near Kidney Springs, is expected to last a relatively short time, according to City Administrator Jeff Temple.

As of earlier this week, primarily only the vegetation in and along the river had been removed, but Temple said, “the next steps are to bring in porous foundation material which is followed by top soil and seeding to establish grassy bank areas. This will be present on both sides of the river as was accomplished in the first phase that was started last year.”

When asked to describe the work being done and the overall goal of the project, Temple, along with City Engineer Tracy Bastian, said, “The initial work was to clean the channel and remove the accumulation of silt and submerged debris that is in the anaerobic decay process which leads to the creation of hydrogen sulfide sometimes referred to as ‘swamp gas’ or ‘sewer gas’. The mechanical removal of extensive cattail growth is necessary to prevent the edges of the river from developing into swamp conditions and allow for the placement of earth materials to re-establish a river bank that is similar to the original nature noted in historical photographs and records.”

“The ultimate goal of the project is to return the river to its true natural state,” Temple stated in an email. “Photographic records of the river from the 1890s shows a clean stream that is self-sustaining and had the ‘babbling brook’ nature that was noted by the first people who made notations about the river. The flattening and widening of the channel after the completion of the permanent flood walls created a stream flow regime that spread the same amount of flow over an area considerably larger than the natural stream bed. This has even led to concerns in recent years by concerned citizens that the flow of the river had decreased over time.”

Unlike how the work was done last year for the first phase – from Centennial Park to the Jennings Avenue bridge – Temple said the landscaping and seeding this year will most likely be done by city crews instead of through a bid process using a private company. He said the plan consists of seeding and mulching using durable native grasses with a mixture of annual grasses for fast cover and native grasses that will establish for the long term and provide low maintenance and high durability. In addition, part of the objective is to introduce small areas of native prairie wild flowers.

The next phase of the project will go from the Jennings Avenue bridge and south to approximately one half block south of University Avenue. Temple did not share a timeline of when that phase will take place.

While many longtime residents of Hot Springs see the work being done as a positive step towards returning the river back to how they remember it looking when they were young – when cattails were not a part of the river’s landscape – many others are seeing the work as unnecessary and destructive. 

Several people representing the latter group let their feelings be heard during Communications from the Public at last week’s Hot Springs City Council meeting on Monday, April 4.

Rajni Lerman, who earlier in the meeting accepted a signed proclamation from Mayor Bob Nelson in regards to him naming April Earth Day Month in Hot Springs, said she hoped the city will utilize the proclamation to set a new direction for the city that “respects and considers the environment before making critical decisions.”

“For today, I’m grieving,” Lerman said. “I’m grieving the loss of life that lived in the section of Fall River that was brutally denuded the other day. Witnessing large equipment moving through this beautiful ecosystem, digging, scraping, excavating, all life in the river, impervious to the suffering of the plants, organisms, aquatic species. Demolishing home to fish, turtles, insects, birds. I’m devastated.”

Lerman went on to say how upset she is that society has not recognized the “interconnectedness of everything” and how the river work currently being done by the city is destroying an integral part of the community and negatively impacting multiple ecosystems. She also described how the cattails within the river provide an important function of bio-accumulating toxins and help clean the river in a wetlands setting.

She then asked Mayor Nelson and the council to create a Fall River Committee that would research and discuss any actions that would affect the Fall River ecosystem. 

Sarah Peterson spoke to council and asked that the city make a resolution to protect the water, similar to what it did in regards to protecting the water from the possibility of uranium mining last year.

Jeffrey Larive said the city has not established any credibility with their decision making regarding their care of Fall River and asked that they form a commission to “prevent silly activities along the river.”

Three other audience members also spoke along the same lines, in opposition of the city’s actions to mechanically remove the cattails and other vegetation from the river.

Fellow audience member Robert Paul also spoke and reminded the council and the audience that there had been a commission established several years ago and did develop a plan, which had seemingly been ignored ever since. He added, that based on what he had seen so far from the city, he asked that everyone exercise some patience in their judgement.

“Let’s wait to see how this project develops, because I think the end result of this is going to be very much more pleasing than the – in my opinion only – the eyesore of just a mass cattail invasion along that stretch of river,” Paul stated.

In response to the audience members’ concerns, Councilperson Debra Johnston said she agreed with many of their comments, but like Paul, asked for patience from the community, because there is a plan in place, that was first developed many years ago, and includes adding vegetation to beautify the area while also making it more accessible to the public.

Both Johnston and fellow councilmember J.R. Huddleston described how the river looked when they were kids growing up in Hot Springs and how the river used to be much more healthy, visible and accessible, without the presence of cattails.

Mayor Nelson thanked Johnston and Huddleston for their comments about how the river used to look when they were growing up because, he said, it highlighted the fact that many of the residents on the side of keeping the cattails in the river are those who were newer to the area and only know the river with cattails.

“When they see them go, it’s traumatic for them, because they think it’s the natural river, and it is not the natural river,” Mayor Nelson said. “Rajni had mentioned, they’re a wetlands. It’s not wetland. It’s a flood channel. That’s not my definition of it. That’s the Corps of Engineers definition of it.”

Mayor Nelson then described how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), who has oversight of the flood channel as part of their Cold Brook Dam property, has posed previous requests to the city that they address the cattails issue, and how the Corps is now pleased with how the city is moving forward with a plan.

The mayor also connected the work currently being done in the river with the nearby highway reconstruction project and the suspended sidewalk, that will overlook that area of Fall River, from the Jennings Avenue bridge to nearly Kidney Springs. 

In City Administrator Temple’s response to the newspaper’s inquiry following last week’s city council meeting, Temple said he and others at City Hall understand how the disturbance of the river may be unsettling to some members of the community. However, he said the most important point to keep in mind is that “this a restoration of a native waterway within the confines of a designated floodway/levee system.”

“The levee system must be accessible by the City for maintenance of the walls and keeping the channel free of obstructions and items that could be dislodged and create added flooding hazards in the event of high flows,” Temple stated in his email. “The City of Hot Springs is the sponsor of the floodway and is completely responsible for its maintenance. Creation of the levee system (official terminology by the USACE) was strictly for the purpose of flood protection. The elimination of the original natural waterway resulted. The current project seeks to restore the natural width and flow characteristics that were noted in the 1890s observations while providing the flood protection features of the levee system and facilitate better access for both recreation and maintenance.”

Fall River County Herald Star

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