A great blue heron lifted off from the stream bank in Washington Park, flapping its wings as it soared above a row of orange plastic fencing and bare earth along the creek. Nearby, a shiny-headed mallard floated in a small pond beneath an elm tree, and a kingfisher flitted from rock to rock amid the ripples.
Aside from the wildlife, the scene along Lick Run doesn’t look all that natural. The fencing, grassless dirt, grading and gravel are evidence of a construction job. But the construction is actually a project that will restore the creek and the park to a more natural state, one with cleaner water, more trees and native plants.
Roanoke’s Stormwater Utility is close to finishing the Lick Run streambank restoration in the southern end of Washington Park, where the creek flows from an underground culvert before disappearing again under busy Orange Avenue.
The project, which is actually two separate jobs because it also includes additional streambank work to the north at Highland Farm near the Countryside neighborhood, will reduce sediment that pollutes the stream and gunks up stormwater pipes.
There’s even a small chance it could alleviate some of the flash flooding that has affected downtown Roanoke in recent years, although that’s not the purpose of this project.
“It might not look like much now, but there will be definite benefits from a natural standpoint,” said Curry McWilliams, the project manager for both parts of the Lick Run restoration. “You’ll see plants blooming and coming to life throughout the year. There will be habitats for birds, and native trees and plants. It will be a nice park that’s both functional and aesthetically pleasing for park users.”
The total cost for both Lick Run projects is $705,320, with half of the money coming from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Stormwater Local Assistance Fund.
The Washington Park portion of the Lick Run project, which has been highly visible because of its proximity to a major intersection near Interstate 581, removed some vegetation and reconstructed creek banks in order to reduce pollutants from runoff. A small baseball field near the creek also was removed from the flood plain.
Over the years, erosion along the banks had shaped Lick Run into a chute that filled with rushing water during storms. The runoff filled the creek with wood, dirt and other polluted debris that eventually had to be dredged from pipes by city work crews.
The restoration cut away the creek banks until the tops were nearly even with the water level. Now, when there’s a thunderstorm, the water will overflow the banks and spread throughout the flood plain in the park, making it more like a wetlands.
Rather than rushing through culverts with damaging sediment, the water will soak into the ground, where trees and plants will take up pollutants and extra nutrients that can be poisonous to aquatic life.
“The sediment will drop out in the floodplain and settle out naturally,” McWilliams said.
Some of the benefits will be realized later, as the young tree plantings of weeping willows, river birches and sycamores reach maturity.
Lick Run is one of Roanoke’s 12 “impaired” streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, for exceeding safe levels of either sediment, temperature, PCBs or bacteria such as E.coli. The restoration should help lower the number of contaminants, a level the EPA calls a Total Maximum Daily Load. The Highland Farms portion of the project also includes creation of wetlands and a pond that will capture other pollutants, which should help reduce levels of bacteria in the creek, McWilliams said.
Ecotone Ecological Restoration of Forest Hill, Maryland, did the work in Washington Park. Northern Virginia-based Wetland Studies and Solutions Inc. handled the Highland Farms project.
Although the projects’ primary goals are to reduce sediment and pollution in the creek, a side benefit could be flash flooding relief for downtown Roanoke.
When it exits Washington Park through a culvert, Lick Run flows toward downtown until it meets Trout Run in a huge underground chamber less than a block east of the City Market. Trout Run itself runs through an underground culvert below Campbell Avenue.
Reducing the amount of water coming from Lick Run during a storm could mean that there’s less water meeting Trout Run and less water to back up through the culverts, explode through manholes and stormwater drains and flood downtown.
“Lick Run is the bigger stream, so when more water pumps though it during a storm event, it creates downstream conditions that, when it’s really high, can’t drain the water from downtown,” said Marcus Aguilar, a stormwater research engineer for the city.
For more than 130 years, ever since city founders made the curious decision to build Roanoke’s central business district on top of a creek-fed salt marsh filled in with rock, businesses have dealt with flash flooding, although the problem seems to have gotten worse in recent years.
The City Market flooded four times in a 12-month period in 2016-17, unleashing a deluge of complaints from business owners whose stores were threatened by high water.
The Lick Run project might reduce some potential flooding, but not much. Trout Run, which runs for miles from its headwaters in northwest Roanoke, is the biggest downtown flooding culprit.
Lick Run “is a water quality project,” said Dwayne D’Ardenne, Roanoke’s stormwater utility director. Flash flood reduction might be “an ancillary benefit,” he said, but that’s not the goal.
“To have a significant impact [on downtown flooding], work will have to be done farther up the watershed,” D’Ardenne said. “This project is mainly about reducing pollutants.”
When the work is done, the fencing is removed, the grass grows back and the witch hazel and spicebush bloom along Lick Run, people and wildlife alike will notice.
“We want it to be a nice park for everyone,” McWilliams said.