Stream Bank Stabilization in the Spring Creek Watershed, 1989-1998

Author:  Dr. Bob Carline



Spring Creek, like many other trout streams in Pennsylvania, has a considerable number of farms along its banks and those of its tributaries.  Pastures for dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep, and horses are typically found along the stream.  Intensive grazing for many years had led to the near complete elimination of streamside vegetation, loss of bank cover for trout, and badly eroding stream banks that contributed large quantities of sediment.

            Studies by the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit (U.S. Geological Survey) showed that in the middle portion of Spring Creek, a stretch of about 5 miles, natural reproduction by wild brown trout was substantially reduced by siltation of spawning sites.  These results prompted the Spring Creek Chapter to undertake a major effort to reduce siltation in the watershed.  The project was initiated in 1989, and was completed in 1998.

            The Chapter first funded a study to assess stream bank conditions in the main stem and tributaries.  The study showed that there were two farms on the main stem and about 12 on the tributaries that had severely eroded stream banks due to intensive livestock use.  One of the problem farms, locally known as the sheep farm, on the main stem was operated by the Pennsylvania State University.

            In response to urging by the Chapter, Penn State agreed to install fences to prevent livestock from trampling on unstable banks.  Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission personnel, through the Adopt-a-Stream Program, designed bank stabilization structures and rock access ramps that allowed livestock to reach the stream edge for water.  The Commission and Penn State provided heavy equipment, and Chapter members arranged for rock to be donated by a local quarry.  Though negotiations and planning required more than a year, actual construction was completed in less than two weeks.  Chapter members helped install rock deflectors, built stiles for angler access, and planted shrubs and trees.

sheepfarm upper 1988 sheep farm during fencing and bank stabilization sheep farm after - 1992
PSU Sheep Farm 1988          Planting trees and shrubs       Project Complete - 1992

The project was a huge success because of the cooperative efforts of several organizations and private interests.  The site is now used for field tours to demonstrate how fencing and bank stabilization can effectively reduce sedimentation.  In July 1992, about two years after project completion, densities of wild brown trout in this reach had increased by about 60%.

sheep farm crossing no fencing     sheep farm crossing after fencing

Sheep Farm 1988 Crossing Before Project                Sheep Farm 1992 After Project

            In spring 1992 Coop Unit personnel began to contact landowners and urged them to enroll in this voluntary project. The major selling point was that fencing and bank stabilization could be done without any cost to the landowner. Another benefit of keeping farm animals out of the stream is reduction in incidence of waterborne diseases.  These diseases include mastitis, salmonella, giardia, leptospirosis, clostridium, and various hoof ailments.  By keeping animals out of streams and perennially wet areas, farmers can reduce the incidence of these diseases. 

            Landowners were asked to apply for cost-sharing from the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), U.S. Department of Agriculture. The ASCS provided up to 75% of the costs for fence construction and bank stabilization with a maximum of $3,500 per farm per year.  The Spring Creek Chapter pledged to provide the difference between total project costs and ASCS's contribution.

            Chapter funds came from a litigation settlement ($35,000), which was awarded when the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation (PEDF) brought suit against a local municipality for failure to meet water quality criteria in its discharge permit.

            A provision of the Federal Clean Water Act allows individuals or organizations to sue an entity that has failed to meet the criteria in their National Discharge Permit and has not been penalized by the appropriate state regulatory agency.  The PEDF brought suit against the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) for fish hatchery discharges, the University Area Joint Authority (UAJA), the Rockview Correctional Institution, and the Borough of Bellefonte.  Eventually suits against PFBC and UAJA were dropped, because a settlement was reached out of court – essentially they agreed to clean up their effluent.  The suit against Rockview was dismissed because of a technicality.  The suit against Bellefonte went to court, and PDEF won its case.  Bellefonte paid PDEF legal costs and was ordered to place in escrow $35,000 that was to be used for improvement of water quality in Spring Creek.  The Spring Creek Chapter was designated as the organization to use the settlement funds.

            The Chapter submitted a proposal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use the fine money.  We proposed to pay for stream bank fencing and stabilization work – this was the 25% that would have been the landowner portion for the cost-sharing requirements through the ASCS grant program.  The EPA rejected our proposal because the work was to be done upstream of Bellefonte; they wanted us to make improvements downstream of Bellefonte.  We then contacted our U.S. Congressional Representative, who convinced EPA that our proposal had merit.

Slab Cabin Run Sub-basin

            After completion of the sheep farm project, efforts were directed at farms along Slab Cabin Run upstream of the South Atherton Street bridge. There were 2.55 miles of unfenced pasture along Slab Cabin Run between South Atherton Street and Pine Grove Mills.  The amount and severity of eroding banks varied considerably among pastures, due in part to differences in animal density.

cedar after    cedar run after

           Slab Cabin Run - 2 years post fencing                    Slab Cabin - New Fence         

            Unit personnel were able to secure agreements with ten landowners in the Slab Cabin Run sub-basin from 1992 to 1998.  The extent of stream bank fencing and stabilization varied greatly among properties, depending upon the landowner’s wishes and needs.  At one end of the spectrum, contractors installed a rock-lined crossing and stabilized a short length of stream bank with rock.  On three properties, landowners would not agree to fencing, but allowed us to make some improvements. At the other end of the spectrum, contractors installed more than 6,000 feet of fencing, built several crossings, and stabilized a substantial length of bank (see Table 1 for summary). 

            In 2007, I revisited all of the project sites to assess how well improvements were holding up.  In most instances fences, accesses, and bank repair were still intact.  In one instance, the property changed ownership and the new owner had not kept up with fence maintenance.  At another property, floods had damaged fencing that had not been repaired.  On the basis of this survey, I estimated that 61% of previously unfenced pastures had been improved and erosion control measures were intact.  Since then, the ClearWater Conservancy and the Centre County Conservation District have been working with landowners to improve riparian conditions.

Cedar Run Sub-basin

            In 1993 Unit personnel initiated the stream bank stabilization program in the Cedar Run sub-basin with a public informational meeting.  All landowners in the sub-basin were sent a letter explaining the program and requesting them to attend the meeting.  About 10 landowners attended the meeting, and they either owned no animals or just a few head of horses or cattle.  The landowners who owned the largest parcels and had the most animals were not in attendance.  Personal visits were required to engage these landowners.

            We secured agreements with eight landowners and completed improvements from 1993 to 1998. On several projects we collaborated with outside organizations: a group of high school students from State College, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  As in the Slab Cabin Run projects, one improvement consisted of a single animal access, while the largest project entailed more than 5,000 feet of fence and three rock-lined crossings. We were able to treat more than 90% of the unfenced pastures, and in 2007, all projects continued to be well maintained.

cedar run before      cedar run rock line crossing
     Cedar Run - pre-construction                                  Cedar Run - rock-lined crossing

Spring Creek

           Bank stabilization projects on six properties were completed along the main stem of Spring Creek and one along Thompson Run.  We worked on two farms (PSU sheep farm and a privately owned operation), two commercial properties, one residential property, a reach in Talley Rand Park, and a section of Fisherman’s Paradise.  Costs for the commercial properties were shared between the owners and Chapter funds.

slab before     slab 1995

        Spring Creek - 1989                        Spring Crk - Near Bank Stabilization In Progress

Funding Sources and Cooperating Agencies

            The Spring Creek Chapter dedicated all of the litigation settlement funds to this project in addition to some chapter funds (approximately $45,000 in total).  An Embrace-a-Stream grant was secured from National TU for $4,600.  The USDA’s Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service contributed about $14,000.  The Pennsylvania Game Commission paid for fencing on three properties using grant money from the Chesapeake Bay Program (about $11,500). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided a grant for $52,800.  The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission provided a substantial amount of contributed time and heavy equipment.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided manpower and materials for several projects.  The Pennsylvania State University paid for fence construction and provided heavy equipment. Quarries in Lemont and Pleasant Gap contributed thousands of tons of limestone.

Assessing Effects of Stream Bank Stabilization

            In 1990, the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit received a grant from the Centre County Conservation District to initiate a study to document the effects of stream bank stabilization on physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of Slab Cabin Run and Cedar Run.  The upper Spring Creek sub-basin (downstream boundary at Oak Hall) was used as a reference, in part, because there were no riparian pastures along the perennial stream reaches.

            Stream gauging equipment was installed at the downstream boundaries of each sub-basin. Stream flow data and water temperature were monitored continuously at these sites, and water quality samples were collected at regular intervals. Representative reaches of stream in each sub-basin were selected for regular monitoring of stream bank erosion, substrate composition, macroinvertebrate communities, and fish populations. Pretreatment data were collected in 1991-1992 from all sites.  Post-treatment data were collected in 2001-2002 and again 2007-2008.

            Stream bank condition.  Stream reaches subjected to grazing along Slab Run were 100% un-vegetated prior to bank stabilization.  When these reaches were resurveyed in 2001, the amount of un-vegetated stream ranged from 0 to 28% and averaged 10%.  In Cedar Run the length of un-vegetated stream bank ranged from 48% to 59% prior to fencing, and by 2001 only 1% to 3% of those stream banks were un-vegetated.  All re-vegetation of stream banks occurred naturally; no efforts, other than fencing, were made to reduce eroding stream banks.

            Substrate composition.  Stream substrates were sampled, dried, and sieved to determine the composition by size classes.  These types of data reflect the sediment loading in the stream.  Samples were collected in areas where brown trout might spawn.  The percent of fine sediment in Spring Creek did not change substantially during the study period (Table 2).  In Slab Cabin Run and Cedar Run the change in fine sediments from 1992 to 2007 was similar; it declined from about 26% to 13%, which suggests that sediment loads in both streams were reduced significantly after treatment.

            Water quality.  The most significant change in water quality was the reduction in sediment load, which was measured as total suspended solids (TSS in mg/L).   During the course of the study, TSS in Spring Creek remained relatively stable during base flow conditions, but in both treatment streams TSS declined by more than 90% (Table 3).  During periods of storm flow, TSS increased in Spring Creek, but declined by 86% in Slab Cabin Run and by 67% in Cedar Run.  These data are consistent with the reductions in fine sediment in spawning substrates.

            Throughout the study period, there were no appreciable changes in concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in any stream.  This result was not surprising, because to reduce nutrient loading, wide buffer strips (35-75 feet) are recommended; our buffer strips were always less than 20 feet.


            Macroinvertebrates.  Prior to restoration efforts, macroinvertebrate densities in Spring Creek were 300% to 400% greater than in Cedar Run and Slab Cabin Run.  By 2007, densities in both treatment streams had increased significantly.  Densities in Cedar Run were similar to those in Spring Creek, and in Slab Cabin Run, densities had improved but were still 50% to 100% less than in Spring Creek.  Another measure of macroinvertebrate community health is number of different kinds of organisms and the number of mayflies and caddisflies.  An improvement in macroinvertebrate diversity was apparent in downstream-most sample sites in both treatment streams, but it was not always evident farther upstream.

            Trout populations.  Densities of wild brown trout increased in both treatment streams, but the improvement in Slab Cabin Run was rather modest. In 1992 prior to bank stabilization, Slab Cabin Run supported a sparse population of brown trout – about 2 age-1 and older fish per 100 m. Hardly a fishable population.  In 2007 Unit personnel found 9/100 m in May and 4/100 m in August.  It is likely that low summer flows in Slab Cabin Run have more influence on trout numbers than the quality of the habitat.

            In Cedar Run, densities of age-1 and older trout increased from about 20/100 m to about 40/100 m.  Unlike Slab Cabin Run, summer flows in Cedar Run are quite good.  These improvements in trout density in Cedar Run seem directly related to improvements in stream habitat.     

Improvements in Redd Counts

            The primary motivation for initiation of the stream bank stabilization project was the poor reproduction of brown trout in the middle section of Spring Creek.  Spring Creek was divided into three sections: (1) the upper section extended from the Highway 45 bridge in Boalsburg to the Highway 26 (College Ave.) bridge in College Township; (2) the middle section extended from Highway 26 to the bridge on Rockview property just upstream of the outfall from their wastewater treatment plant; (3) the lower section extended from Rockview to Milesburg.

            Since Unit personnel first began redd counts in 1976, the total number has ranged from about 800 to almost 2,100.  Counts have varied among years and among sections.  In 1987 and 1988, we counted about 8 redds/km in the middle section.  In the upper and lower sections, we found 37 to 38 redds/km (Figure 1).  Not only were there fewer redds in the middle section, survival of trout embryos was about one-half that of embryos in the upper and lower sections.

            Redd counts were resumed in 1997, when most of the stream bank restoration work had been completed in the Cedar Run and Slab Cabin Run sub-basins.  In 1997 redd numbers in the middle section increased to 31/km, nearly a fourfold increase over the counts in 1987-1988.  Redd counts increased over the next three years and then fluctuated about the long-term mean of 46 redds/km, nearly six times higher than in 1987-1988.

            While we would like to credit this substantial increase in trout redds to our stream bank stabilization work, we need to be cautious about assigning cause and effect.  It is possible that there were decreases in sediment contributions from Slab Cabin Run downstream of our project boundary or from the borough of State College, where storm water drains into Thompson Run and then into Slab Cabin Run.  We do not know of any apparent reductions in sediment delivery to streams, but it may have occurred.  But clearly, the reduction in total suspended solids that was documented in Cedar Run and Slab Cabin Run translates to a reduction in sediment load of hundreds of tons.


         We can safely conclude that this was a hugh success.  Owing to the efforts of the Spring Creek Chapter of TU, a significant and measureable impact was made on the Spring Creek watershed.  We attacked the problem of stream bank eroasion by installing more than 37,00 feet of fence and actively repairing more than 6,000 feet of unstable stream bank.  In addition, thousands more feet of the stream bank was stabilized through natural re-vegetation after livestock was excluded from the riparian areas.  We were able to document more than a 60% reduction in sediment load coming from the Slab Cabin Run and Cedar Run sub-basins.  We infer that this reduction in sediment load was at least partially responsible for the nearly six-fold increase in trout redds in the middle section of Spring Creek.

Bob Carline

Chair, Stream Improvement Committee

Leader, Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit