Home » Features, Spring 2009

On the Banks of Buck Creek

4 June 2009 No Comment

Behind The Springfield Museum of Art and Carleton-Davidson Baseball Stadium, an unexpected sound emanates: the gentle gurgle of Buck Creek as it flows quietly through Springfield. Surprisingly, it seems few Springfielders even notice the nearly seven-mile creek, much less walk down to its banks. Industrialized, overgrown, Buck Creek is almost a forgotten resource. John Loftis ’94 and Professor of Geology John Ritter want to change that.

buck-creek_2Long ago, the healthy and vigorous waters of Buck Creek made for an ideal site to build the city that became Springfield. But time and industry have left their marks on the stream. Though it served the city well – supplying energy and drinking water – today the creek is a shadow of its former self, its essential character and flow altered by a series of dams.

For John Loftis ’94 and John Ritter, professor of geology, the restoration of Buck Creek to a more natural state through the modification of four of the creek’s low-head dams is not only a priority but a passion. Together, the two have worked tirelessly in hopes of eventually creating an attractive and unique community resource that will provide new recreational opportunities, enhanced stream habitat and outstanding environmental education opportunities for local schools and Wittenberg students. The project ties into existing plans by the city of Springfield to improve and expand urban green spaces and recreational opportunities.

“Communities across the country are looking to river corridors as a critical part of urban renewal plans,” Loftis says. “And when this project is complete, it will put Springfield on the map as a recreation destination.”

Healthy Stream, Healthy City

The project is the brainchild of Loftis, an avid kayaker who envisions Buck Creek as a premier recreational waterway for canoeing and kayaking. But, he promises, it will be much more than a place for boaters. The project will enhance access to the river, create public gathering places along the stream, and generate much-needed economic opportunities. In short, it will be a source of local pride, a place for all to enjoy.

“People are drawn to water,” he notes. “Imagine people taking their lunch down to the stream banks, for example. If you make it accessible and attractive, people will come, and the whole community will benefit.”

But how did a local kayaking enthusiast and a geologist from Wittenberg come together to work so passionately to restore Buck Creek? It started more than five years ago, when Loftis returned to his native Springfield after living in Colorado. Searching for a good local waterway to satisfy his kayaking hobby, he eventually realized he would need to create one. Fortunately, he had seen enough transformed rivers around the country to know that anything was possible.

Buck Creek turned out to be one of the most practical local sites to attempt such a feat: It has good water flow and an existing park structure around the creek. And the project could take advantage of the growing national interest in dam removal and modification. So began the long process of obtaining a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which required a range of environmental impact studies. And that is where Ritter enters into the picture.


Science in Service to the Community

buck-creek_1As chair of Wittenberg’s geology department, Ritter has spent considerable time in streams and rivers – just not in boats. More often, he is dressed in chest waders, standing in the stream to measure water quality or collect sediment samples. He has also conducted research on local streams; specifically, their recent history of change in response to human impact as part of a stream resource protection program. When he heard about Loftis’ project, he volunteered to do the necessary monitoring work required by the U.S. Army Corps. He and his students completed the pre-project assessment of the creek’s habitat quality as part of the permitting process for construction work in the creek. And they have assessed the extent of wetland soils and habitat quality for the Indiana bat, a federally listed endangered species, along the creek corridor.

“By returning the creek to a more natural rhythm of water flow, we should improve stream quality and enhance habitat for fish and aquatic organisms. So, from an environmental perspective, the project is very exciting,” Ritter says. “Even more exciting is that it will serve as a model for other communities considering similar projects.”

It is also one example of the many educational opportunities Ritter envisions. To monitor the stream before, during and after the project, he and his students will use state-of-the-art equipment, including water quality monitoring stations on the creek (to be installed this winter), a stream gauge station, and a weather station (on the roof of Wittenberg’s science center). Ritter says the need for this kind of stream assessment is growing nationwide as more communities look to improve the environmental and recreational functions of local waterways through dam modification.

“The dam modifications, together with the distribution of monitoring equipment to assess their impact, make the project interesting to environmental professionals at the state and national level,” he says.

But this information won’t be just for select scientists. Local schools and the entire Springfield community will also be able to access the data via a Web site with real-time measurements of weather, rainfall, stream flow and water quality. Students, teachers and recreational users will be able to log in daily and monitor changes in the stream. It will offer a hands-on learning experience for local students and an opportunity for citizens to get back in touch with the creek. And it is these benefits to the community that get to the heart of the project and the reasons Ritter and Loftis are so driven to succeed.

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Ritter was on a university strategic planning committee that explored how Wittenberg might expand its engagement and investment in the Springfield community. The newly launched Center for Civic & Urban Engagement is Wittenberg’s tangible commitment to that goal. “Renewing the Core and the Creek” is one of the Center’s four key initiatives.

“The project epitomizes what we are trying to do at the Center in terms of providing a service to the community and improving the downtown,” Ritter says. “I like to think of the work I am doing with my students – and the resources it will provide to the community – as value-added to John’s [Loftis] vision of the creek as a recreational corridor.”

Of course, this sophisticated equipment will provide new and expanded research opportunities for Wittenberg students and will open up the possibility of collaborations between state and federal resource protection agencies and Wittenberg.

“Wittenberg can be a resource to these agencies and a catalyst for the exchange of ideas and information,” he says.

Calling Ritter’s hours of effort already spent monitoring water quality and the state of the creek “priceless,” Loftis is excited to be collaborating with his alma mater. He believes that Wittenberg’s investment in the project is a win-win proposition for both Springfield and Wittenberg.


Building Local Support

In addition to wading through the formidable amounts of paperwork and technical requirements for the project, Loftis has spent countless hours drumming up local support for the project. He has given presentations around town, met with private donors, and explored marketing opportunities. He intends to raise all of the money for the project through private, local sources – one dam at a time.

buck-creek_4

To date, the engineering phase has been entirely funded, and Loftis is now raising the money for the actual construction work. With the enthusiastic support of the city, the Springfield Conservancy District (which owns the land around Buck Creek), the Springfield Chamber of Commerce and National Trails Parks and Recreation District, Loftis is optimistic that the project will be a success.

“Many of the groups working on the downtown redevelopment have incorporated this project into their existing plans,” he notes.

All in all, it seems to be the right project at the right time. But Loftis’ vision extends beyond even the restoration of Buck Creek. He and his brother Kevin see the possibility for an annual river festival on the creek, the extension of city bike paths and the creation of a mountain biking system. Their plans to transform the limestone cliffs of Veterans Memorial Park (Cliff Park) into sites for bouldering (rock climbing without the aid of ropes and technical equipment) are already in the works. And Ohio state officials have expressed their interest in supporting these kinds of projects as part of their efforts to promote a healthy lifestyle.

“This project puts Springfield at the forefront of alternative recreation in the Midwest – no other city will match the outdoor recreational facilities available within an inter-connected urban park system corridor,” he says. It seems fitting that a city founded on the banks of a creek and named for the area’s many springs should look again to its waters for renewal. By transforming Buck Creek into a vibrant feature of the Springfield community once again, Ritter and Loftis hope to bring people back to the water – to learn, to kayak, to bike, to climb, to walk, or to just sit and listen to the forgotten sounds of a healthy stream.

How will it work?

A look at the proposed dam modification on Buck Creek

John Loftis '94

John Loftis '94

When it came to deciding how to restore more natural flows on Buck Creek for boating, Loftis hired the engineers at Recreation Engineering and Planning, who have designed similar projects across the United States. Because the Buck Creek dams still protect utilities, dam removal was not an option. Instead, the project will modify the dams by creating drop structures that redistribute the water’s vertical drop into a series of graded drops and pools. These grade-control structures will shape the creek to more closely resemble its original pattern of pools and riffles. The result? Better and safer navigability, improved in-stream habitat and recreation opportunities, and continued use of the dams.

The project will modify four dams at the following sites: 1) Old Reid Park where Beaver Creek flows into Buck Creek; 2) the Carleton Davidson Stadium site in Mitchell Boulevard Park; 3) The Springfield Museum of Art; and, 4) Snyder Park.

When the modifications are complete, the creek’s waters will be suitable for kayakers and canoeists. Recreational boaters will be able to do a full “town run” by putting in at Old Reid Park and taking out at Snyder Park. Or they can “park-and-play” by putting in and taking out at the same site.

In February 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued its official 404 Permit allowing construction on the dams. Because of their direct connection to downtown revitalization plans, Loftis anticipates working on the Snyder Park and at the museum sites in July 2009 (construction must be completed during the low-flow summer months). The Beaver Creek and Davidson Stadium sites are slated for construction beginning July 2010.

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