Stream Restoration Success & a Seriously Slimy Indicator!

Why Sea Lamprey are a Super Sign on the Jordan

What’s slimy, eel-like, has row upon row of pointy jagged teeth inside its suction-cup mouth and is an indicator of a healthy waterway? If you guessed a Sea Lamprey – you’re correct! One of the most primitive vertebrate species is finding its way back into our Lehigh River watershed – as nearby as Jordan Creek, where it was identified this spring.

And this could-be creature-feature happens to be really good news! This species spells success for Wildlands Conservancy’s stream restoration efforts, and it boasts improved water quality for drinking, swimming, fishing and boating.

Why Did the Sea Lamprey Surface in the Jordan?

The Sea Lamprey is an anadromous species. Along with the likes of Pacific salmons and sturgeon, Atlantic salmon and sturgeon, striped bass and blueback herring, the Sea Lamprey is born in freshwater, travels to the sea to mature, and eventually returns to freshwater to spawn and finish their lifecycle.

Now for the “why” of why this guy showed up in the Jordan Creek, Wildlands director of ecological restoration, Kristie Fach, says it has everything to do with dam removal aspect of our stream restoration work.

The City of Allentown’s Jordan Creek is a 34.1-mile long tributary to the Little Lehigh Creek, and had been designated as “impaired” by the Department of Environmental Protection. Backed by the support our giving community, Wildlands worked with local and state agencies to restore fish passage to just about 10 miles along the Jordan, which included a series of dam removals. As of June 2019, five of nine existing dams have been removed.

 “It’s great to see positive changes to the stream and habitat after removing the first series of dams on the Jordan Creek,” says Fach. “I’m grateful for the body of partnerships, donors and volunteers that help us make these critical advancements for the health of our Lehigh River watershed.

Jordan Creek – Jordan Park site: before dam removal in 2013

Jordan Creek – Jordan Park site: after 2013 dam removal

Why Dams Get in the Way (of more than just Sea Lamprey)

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) is among Wildlands’ partners when it to comes to both land protection and environmental stewardship. Specific to species like the Sea Lamprey, PFBC fisheries biologist, Benjamin Lorson, says, “Several species have had a significant portion of their native ranges cut off by the construction of dams and many of their populations are at a fraction of historic levels.”

So when retired biologist Mike Kaufmann reported sighting multiple Sea Lamprey redds, or nests, in the Jordan this spring, those involved with the restoration efforts there were thrilled. The discovery of these anadromous fish points to the positive changes that occur when a waterway is allowed to function in its most natural state.

These fish are not the warmest and fuzziest of mascots for stream restoration success, however, they are integral to the natural system Wildlands’ restoration efforts aimed to repair. Lorson notes, “Diverse community = diverse habitat = healthy waterways.”

Across the nation, crumbling dams – remnants of mankind’s attempts at harnessing the power of moving water – are relics dotting our country’s varied waterways.  In the United Sates, a movement is growing (actually led in number by Pennsylvania) to support the removal of man-made dams.

Dam removal is one of the most low-cost, effective tools for permanently restoring the ecology and natural function of streams.  Too, results are often realized soon after removal.  And while viscous, water-dwelling creatures like our Sea Lamprey might make us squirm, their presence speaks to the reversal of negative human impacts on local waterways (making them almost lovable?).

Old obsolete dams can:

  •  Impede the natural movement of water, materials, plants and animals from place to place for feeding, breeding and more
  • Trap fish and other aquatic wildlife
  • Cause sediment to build up
  • Raise water temperature and lower oxygen levels where water has unnaturally  pooled
  • Contribute to local flooding
  • Become a public safety hazard when people recreate in exclusion zones – climbing and walking on crumbling structures, or swimming in dam-created whirlpools that pose a drowning risk

Other Tools in Our Stream Restoration Kit & Looking Ahead

Likeminded partners and generous supporters keep Wildlands on the ground advancing stream restoration, while reaching for a variety of tools in combination with dam removal.  The results benefit human and wildlife residents in the vicinity in lots of amazing ways.

“First we evaluate possible barriers to completing a project successfully along with any risks involved. Once necessary partnerships are secured and the permitting process is complete, heavy machinery is brought in to take down the structure. In addition to removing the dam itself, any other opportunities to improve the environment are also incorporated,” says Fach.

Planting riparian buffers (strips of native grasses, shrubs and trees that protect waterways by providing shade and minimizing polluted runoff) and installing PFBC-approved in-stream fish habitat structures are also proven tools.

And successes like the Jordan help Wildlands forward future projects. Fach is looking forward to advancing plans along the Bushkill Creek as well as the Lehigh River headwaters situated at the 500-acre Klondike property Wildlands permanently protected last year. Both endeavors include specifics for dam removal.

Jordan Creek – MacArthur Road site: before 2013 dam removal

Jordan Creek – MacArthur Road site: after 2013 dam removal

With these steps forward and continued marks of positive progress, Wildlands will continue to aid in clearing the paths originally cut by Mother Nature herself. With more wide-open waterways, who knows what interesting fauna with fins, scales, claws or feathers we may encounter in and around our critical, beautiful Lehigh River watershed!