October 22, 2021

The wonder of willow

Harvested plants used for environmental projects

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Cheyenne Nowalk of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District harvests willow Thursday at Dwyer Park in Preble. The district cuts the willow into staves, which it then replants in riparian and agriculture buffers across the county.

Cheyenne Nowalk and Avery Barber looked over the stand of willow saplings Thursday and began trimming. They were looking for saplings of a certain size: 1 1/2, maybe 2 inches in diameter.

They each grabbed a pair of loppers and began cutting.

“Mainly, we have to harvest stakes,” Barber said.

Nowalk showed one. “You take this, pound it into the ground and they’ll grow,” she said.

The Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District harvested willow Thursday at Dwyer Park in Little York to be used across Cortland County, most for buffer zones.

The harvested willow can contribute to projects including stream bank stabilization and re-vegetation, riparian buffers and living snow fences. They are very hardy, flood-tolerant and wind-tolerant plants with a lifespan of up to 20 years.

“The idea is that they will root and grow,” said Amanda Barber, district manager for the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District. “Before, we were calling around trying to find materials that would be available this time of year, but most of them were allocated or gotten rid of and now we have a place we can go almost any time of year.”

“Planting riparian buffers is the best bang for the buck for water quality,” Nowalk said, and as Cortland County’s streams and rivers flow south to the Otselic River, then the Chenango River and the Susquehanna, the implications trickle all the way to the Chesapeake Bay.

The Soil and Water Conservation District harvests as needed and is usually contacted by project managers in need of assistance, like the Marathon Highway Department.

“We had a dry weather creek that would dry up in the summer but when we got these torrential rains, it comes up quick and really flows,” said Highway Superintendent Randy Ensign. “We had an engineer involved that wanted to do a lot of riprap and rock, but the cost was unbelievable.”

Stabilizing the stream bed with rock would cost the town of Marathon around $100,000, Ensign said. A willow stem costs $1.

“The cost was unbelievable,” Ensign said. “It was a lot cheaper to use the willows.”

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Avery Barber of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District harvests willow Thursday at Dwyer Park. The SWCD harvests as needed and is usually contacted by project managers in need of assistance.

For projects like the Town of Marathon, the bank is stabilized with rocks, then seed is planted to mark where the willows will be placed, Ensign said. It provides stability to the stream bank and habitat for animals and other wildlife.

“Biological systems are more resilient, so when you have a biological system that’s put in properly and designed properly and there’s an extreme event that might cause some damage, they can self heal and regrow,” said Tim Volk, associate professor at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

A hard system, like rocks, might wash out during a storm and cause further damage, Volk said.

But a combination of both a hard system and a biological system is sometimes the best solution.

“If the stream bank deteriorates, plants alone can’t resolve it and a combination might be the most effective,” Volk said.