The banks of Elk Lick Run are dirt walls cut deep into the ground, denuded of the vegetation that once held the soil in place. The exposed dirt is continually eaten away by rushing water until whole sections of the bank collapse into the stream.
"This whole watershed is just raw," said Elmer Dengler, district conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. "When you start walking the banks, it's just incredible to see what happened around here."
What's true for Elk Lick Run is true for much of Allegany County, which is near the western edge of the Bay watershed in Maryland. Last summer, two big storms sent torrents of water down the mountainous slopes, gouging out several stream systems.
That was followed by January's flood, which did even more damage to the county's streams. The area, Dengler said, has had three, 100-year storms in the span of 18 months.
Dengler and his staff - working with county and state conservation officials - are now working to take advantage of the bad situation.
Their tool is the federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which provides funding for the NRCS to step in after major floods and shore up eroding streambanks that pose imminent threats to roads, buildings or property. In the past, that meant constructing retaining walls or pouring giant chunks of rock, known as rip rap, along the sides of streams to prevent further erosion.
While those activities are still taking place, the Allegany NRCS office is supplementing traditional engineering work with new "bioengineering" techniques.
Instead of working with concrete and rock, they are attempting to work with nature. Where granite chunks were once routinely used to protect streambanks, bioengineering relies on tree roots and groundcovers to hold the soil in place.
And bioengineering brings added benefits. Emergency watershed funds are restricted to correcting problems caused by the storm. By planting trees and other vegetation, bioengineering can not only correct erosion problems, but can also improve on a stream's condition: Trees on the streambank, for example, will eventually provide the water with shade, leaves and branches needed to improve aquatic habitat.
In many cases, the bioengineering will cost less. In part, that is because the materials - plants and trees - are available for free or at low cost. Using those tools, and working in collaboration with agencies such as the Maryland Forest Service, the Allegany Soil Conservation District and volunteer groups such as AmeriCorps and the Boy Scouts, allows limited funding to cover more streambank than may otherwise be possible.
"As expenses limit what you can do under conventional practices, and as people are looking more at habitat and long-term stability, bioengineering is at least getting more of a look," Dengler said.
Bioengineering has increasingly been promoted within the NRCS, but the damage in Allegany County has allowed Dengler and his staff to undertake some of the agency's most extensive efforts in the region.
While those efforts have been confined to several thousand feet of streambanks in the county, the potential is endless. "There's miles of potential work here," Dengler noted.
The mountainous county is marked by steep slopes that can quickly pour water into its fast-flowing streams. "We have ridge tops and valley bottoms and not a whole lot in between," Dengler said.
Land that has been cleared for development, farming or roads pours even more water into the streams. That compounded the damage caused by the storms in the last 18 months. The result is on display in Cumberland, the county seat, where photos in many businesses and museums document the extent of the area's flood damage.
To improve streams through bioengineering, workers and volunteers have put thousands of "live stakes" into streambanks. Live stakes are willow branches cut into lengths of one or two feet. They are driven into the ground like a stake, but over time, the stake will sprout into a bank-stabilizing tree.
In some places, rock weirs are built into streams. These create a series of "pools and plunges" that provide better habitat for fish. In addition, they can steer water flow toward the middle of the stream, keeping the erosive power away from vulnerable banks.
Other tools include logs of coconut fibers which resist rot and, when staked at the edge of the stream, absorb much of the erosive force of the water, giving newly planted vegetation a chance to take root.
Other materials, such as clumps of woody brush and tangled masses of roots salvaged from dead trees are also used to buffer streambanks. "You can think of that as organic rip rap," Dengler said.
The "Achilles heel" of bioengineering, Dengler said, is that it takes time - sometimes years - for the trees to develop a root system that adequately protects streambanks.
So, in many places, workers are attempting to merge bioengineering with traditional engineering techniques. Rip rap is placed at the water's edge with trees planted just beyond. "We want enough willows to grow here that they will essentially lock the rock in place as they grow," Dengler said.
At a site on Evits Creek, workers were placing willow cuttings in the midst of gabions - walls of wire mesh cages filled with rock - that were being built to protect a road from being eroded away. The hope is that the willows will grow and provide shade. Evits Creek - which is the target of the Evits Watershed Project, a cooperative restoration project with Pennsylvania - is a trout stream, Dengler noted. The willows could provide shade to cool water temperatures for the sensitive fish - something the gabions alone would not do.
"The last thing I want to say is that we have the solution to streambank stabilization," Dengler cautioned. "But we do have an alternative and with a little bit of open-mindedness and flexibility, a lot can be accomplished."