I recently applied for a grant for habitat restoration to improve Lake Ontario's water quality at a nonprofit project in Cayuga County. My idea was to plant native perennial plants and trees in a brushy area over run by thistle, multiflora rose, buckthorn and other invasive “weeds”.
I was turned down.
This came as no surprise. My track record with grants, after all, is pretty much zilch. But the reason was. This upland habitat project is too remote from our mission of restoring the Great Lakes the funder responded. Well, I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere, but I was disappointed. Water, after all, runs downhill.
But water from forested areas runs downhill far more slowly than it does from fields. The professionals use the term ”flashy” for runoff from bare farm fields or asphalt pavement.
Areas with trees are good at soaking up water. Forest soils are high in organic matter and the trees and shrubs themselves intercept the rain and break it up into smaller less forceful droplets that don't hit the soil so hard. The soil is usually covered by a natural mulch of leaves, too.
Near my house is a roadside ditch that runs past a farm field and a small patch of second growth forest. Part of the wooded area by the road is swampy. When it rains, the swamp looks very odd. The half next to the field is a rich brown color. The other half next to the woodlot is crystal clear. The two different waters meet and form a sharp boundary at a culvert that drains under the road. The culvert runs to Lake Ontario.
Silt damages stream habitats by smothering the plants and small bottom dwellers that fish and other creatures eat. Silt also can carry toxic chemicals, excessive nutrients and fertilizers, heavy metals and even radioactive elements that adsorb onto the particles.
Progressive farmers have long installed buffer strips and grass waterways in and beside their fields to protect water. Buffer strips are usually made up of perennial plants of some sort, grasses or native plants that also benefit native wildlife. Goldenrod, milkweed, various asters and others provide forage for honey bees and native pollinators.
Perennial native plants have tremendous root systems. They hold soil far more tenaciously than annuals do. Wes Jackson of the Land Institute likes to show slides of perennial grasses with nine foot long roots in his lectures. Such plantings also increase the diversity and complexity of the lake's watershed. The watershed is more resilient ( a big buzzword these days in management circles). It's better able to deal with extreme rainfall events associated with climate change. That's not a bad thing.
Insects pollinate many perennial plants and some native trees. So bees do assist in protecting water quality in the lake.
Plant trees. Native trees. Please. It will help the lake. I'm ordering another 35 sycamores, locusts and yellow poplars from Coldstream this spring for my own woodlot.