For centuries, humans have entered the ring with Mother Nature. In vain, we have sought to control and conquer. But the planet, with its complex ecosystems and weather patterns, is an unrelenting, formidable force — one that should be viewed less as an opponent and more as a teammate. We humans need to work smarter, not harder.
The Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation realized this in 2021 when it came to managing its beaver population. Although beaver dams enhance the environment by providing habitat for many sensitive plant and animal species, improving water quality, and controlling floods by slowing water movement, they can also contribute to flooding after unusually heavy rain or snow enters bodies of water with significant blockages.
In these cases, the county would remove dams where possible. “This approach supplied some relief, but eventually, the beavers would return and rebuild their dams,” said Paul Magness, CPRP, Deputy Director – Harford County Parks & Recreation.
Rising water in the Bynum Run Watershed was threatening a stretch of the popular MA & PA Heritage Trail. Harford County Parks & Recreation attributed the problem in part to two beaver dams in the area and decided to contact Ecotone, one of the county’s on-call contractors for waterway work knowing they had experience installing beaver flow devices.
It’s a simple, economical, ingenious, eco-friendly innovation. A pipe is manually installed at the top end of a pond and through the offending beaver dam to drain water back into the stream or creek below the dam. Since beavers, by their persistent, engineering-minded nature, will attempt to stop the water flow through the dam, Ecotone installs a submerged cage that encases the upper portion of the pipe. The low-tech nature of this project equates to minimal maintenance and environmental impact. Check out the video below to see the installation from start to finish at the MA & PA Trail.
Back in Spring 2021, Ecotone installed the county’s first beaver flow device at Robert Copenhaver Park on the smaller of the two problematic dams. “Our main goals were to stop flooding and lower the water elevation. Eventually, the trail would flood and drown the trees and vegetation in the area,” said Ecotone Project Manager Mark Vollmer. He added that, after a roughly two-hour installation process, the device starts to work immediately and will remain in place indefinitely or until the beaver moves.
“It significantly improved the situation in the area behind the dam at that site,” said Magness. The county recently ordered the device to be installed on a bigger beaver dam at Robert Copenhaver and is hopeful about its success at a larger scale. When asked if he would recommend this service to other Parks and Recreation departments and/or other Government agencies, Magness responded, “The county thinks beaver flow devices are an effective alternative to removing beaver dams.”
Though sometimes considered a nuisance and are often trapped (or worse), beavers have an astonishing impact on our environment. In the early 20th century, beavers were hunted and killed to near extinction for the use of their fur to make popular hats during that time. Since then, the beaver population has rebounded and continues to increase. These “ecosystem engineers” are essential in improving water quality, increasing biodiversity, and creating habitats for plants and wildlife. When they build beaver dams and pools, they reduce soil erosion and retain sediment, which absorbs and filters pollutants. They also create wetland habitats for other species including fish, mammals, waterfowl, songbirds, amphibians, and insects which aids in biodiversity. Beaver ponds also recharge our drinking water aquifers, stabilize the water table, and better maintain stream flows during droughts. Beavers are even being reintroduced around the country to improve arid lands.
“Our philosophy is to allow nature to restore nature,” said Ecotone’s owner Scott McGill. “We set the table and let nature take it from there.” It appears that is happening in Harford County. A win-win for the community and Mother Earth.