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Riparian conservation efforts inspire volunteerism among community members
At the heart of downtown Fort Wayne, Indiana, is “The Confluence,” an area where the St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee Rivers converge. It’s an apt name considering the history of the city, but also because of where the city is going. Fort Wayne is consistently changing, with the three rivers remaining constant at the city’s center. People are drawn to water for a reason, and the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department has leapt into riverfront development.
In 2019, Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation unveiled a new park situated on the St. Marys River — Promenade Park — and it’s just the first of three phases of riverfront development in the city. However, park and recreation professionals know that any new park or public feature brings new maintenance needs. How do you protect, restore and improve the rivers for both current and future citizens? The answer for Fort Wayne is a river barge and a passionate crew.
Inception of Riparian Division
The riparian division at Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation began in 2015 with the publication of the City of Fort Wayne Riparian Management Plan prepared by Biohabitats, an ecologically focused design firm based in Cleveland. From riparian buffers to herbivory management and everything in between, the Riparian Plan served as the foundation and guide for the city’s future riparian maintenance supervisor.
The plan analyzed and assessed the current ecological conditions along the riparian corridors throughout downtown Fort Wayne. After the extensive study, the plan laid out recommendations and methods that would benefit the restoration, renovation and conservation aspects of riparian work. This includes the management of invasive species, herbivory wildlife, viewsheds, large woody debris, stream restoration and riparian vegetation.
The division was staffed in 2017, and, of course, there was plenty of trial and error. The riparian division staff learned what works and what doesn’t, but they also learned which tasks have the most impact on both the goals of the team and the goals of the park and recreation department as a whole.
River Safety and Navigability
The single most important tool in the department was a passionate crew, and the second most important turned out to be a barge. The city purchased a 30-foot aluminum river barge outfitted with a six-ton knuckle-boom crane. Although small in terms of cranes, this piece of equipment has been invaluable for cleaning and removing hazards in the three rivers in Fort Wayne.
The crane is used to remove large woody debris from the rivers in the form of log jams, floating debris, and deadheads — large woody debris that have one end lodged into the riverbed leaving only one small end poking out of the river. Although it may look innocuous on the surface of the river, a deadhead can easily puncture the hull of a boat.
To date, the crew has removed more than 818 tons of woody debris from the downtown area of Fort Wayne.
Water not only attracts humans, but also all kinds of wildlife, and the rivers at Fort Wayne are no exception. The city features a healthy ecosystem that attracts river otters, mink, frogs, foxes, deer, muskrats, numerous aquatic birds and beavers, as well as more than two dozen different varieties of fish. Unfortunately, beavers, deer and geese have proven to be a nuisance to riverfront development.
Geese normally would migrate during winter months, but with the current urban setting, they feel no need to migrate. Their numbers have swelled within downtown Fort Wayne, and geese tend to be aggressive toward our community members — not to mention the green waste they leave behind, which has become one of the major contributors of pollutants to our rivers. To combat this problem, the riparian crew has begun to follow the Indiana Department of Natural Resource’s regulations to addle geese eggs in February and March. Later in the year, they contract a professional wildlife expert to catch and relocate hundreds of geese.
Beavers are cute, but their large orange teeth are destructive. They can ring the base of a tree in a matter of hours, which, in turn, kills the tree. It doesn’t take long after the death of the tree for it to fall into the river, causing navigational hazards for park patrons. The riparian crew has mitigated this problem by wrapping the base of the beavers’ favorite species of trees with hardware cloth or by applying sand paint. Both methods are highly effective to deter beavers from chewing through the bark of the tree. The same method is used to protect trees from deer as well.
Invasive Species Management and Volunteerism
Fort Wayne is no stranger to invasive plant species, the number one culprit being Asian bush honeysuckle. Once people learn about this plant and what it does to the ecosystem, they start to notice it everywhere. The riparian crew has worked hard to remove this plant, along with Japanese knotweed, tree of heaven, buckthorn, garlic mustard and many others.
The crew has worked with thousands of volunteers who are just as passionate about the removal of invasive species in Fort Wayne. As a result, more than 56 tons of plants have been removed with the assistance of more than 1,551 volunteers, amounting to $88,790 worth of labor.
Improving Water Quality and River Safety
Fort Wayne City Utilities draws its water from the St. Joseph River, so the city takes water quality seriously. The city currently is undergoing a massive deep tunnel project to improve water quality, and the riparian division is doing its part as well. The crew installed booms, which act as floating barriers around outflows to catch debris coming into the city’s rivers. Controlling the geese population helps with water quality as well.
River safety is paramount, especially with recent increases in boat traffic, as park patrons are returning to the rivers and riverfront development increases. The riparian crew deploys safety buoys at both dams in the city and around any obstructions that could endanger boat users. The crew patrols the rivers to remove new hazards or log jams before the start of the recreational season and deploys buoys at each dam and hazard in the downtown area, along with the city docks.
The crew has removed more than 18,720 pounds of trash out of the rivers so far.
Public Outreach and Education
The Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation riparian crew has made numerous presentations to local organizations and school groups about water quality and volunteerism, reaching more than 3,739 people. They share the work they do to make the rivers better, and how citizens can contribute to the effort in their day-to-day activities and by stepping up to volunteer with the riparian crew to clear invasive species from the riparian zones. The gratified faces of the volunteers when they step back and view the impact that even a few people can have on our environment is magnificent. While the crew has worked with large corporations to clear large sections of honeysuckle, the majority of the work done has been finished with just a few passionate citizens. Fort Wayne’s Bloomingdale Park is a perfect example of the staff’s combined efforts with local volunteers, as the removal of 15 tons of honeysuckle restored and renovated the park into something Fort Wayne community members are extremely proud of now.
It began with a passionate few and a boat to make a huge change in the city’s rivers, but passion is contagious. The riverfront is now at the forefront of everyone’s vision here in Fort Wayne. Educating the public, improving water quality, improving river safety and restoring the riparian zones are just the start of the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation riparian division, but once you’re part of the crew, you are a member for life, and Fort Wayne is flowing into the future.
KayeC Jones is Riparian Management Supervisor for Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation.