USACE Buffalo District: A proving ground for Engineering with Nature

USACE Buffalo District
Published April 3, 2015
Photo collage of the engineered blocks to be used for operation and maintenance work on the Cleveland Harbor Green Breakwater Project, Cleveland, OH

Photo collage of the engineered blocks to be used for operation and maintenance work on the Cleveland Harbor Green Breakwater Project, Cleveland, OH

Proposed near-shore placement site of dredged sediment at Gulf Point, Presque Isle Bay, PA

Proposed near-shore placement site of dredged sediment at Gulf Point, Presque Isle Bay, PA

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Buffalo District has been named as one of two ‘Proving Grounds’ for the USACE, Engineering with Nature (EWN) program.  

EWN is defined as the intentional alignment of natural and engineering processes to efficiently and sustainably deliver economic environmental and social benefits through collaborative processes.   

EWN is based on four fundamental elements: 

  1. Use natural processes to maximize benefits, thereby reducing demand on limited resources, minimizing the environmental footprint of projects, and enhancing the quality of project benefits.
  2. Use science and engineering to produce operational efficiencies supporting sustainable delivery of projects benefits.
  3. Broaden and extend the base of benefits provided by projects to include substantiated economic, social, and environmental benefits.
  4. Use science-based collaborative processes to organize and focus interests, stakeholders, and partners to reduce social friction, resistance, and project delays, while producing more broadly acceptable projects.  

The EWN team conducted a successful "Proving Ground" implementation workshop with Buffalo District on December 1-3, 2014.  Approximately 30 USACE team members collaborated in this effort from Buffalo District and both the Environmental Laboratory and Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory of the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). Along with the Galveston District, the Buffalo District has agreed to serve as an EWN ‘Proving Ground’ for District-wide implementation of the principles and practices of EWN.  Participants shared information about EWN, ongoing projects, and worked in collaborative teams to identify opportunities to implement EWN principles and practices within the Districts current and future projects. 

"Our association with the EWN program affords an excellent opportunity to exercise our regional leadership while demonstrating our commitment to USACE Environmental Operating Principles," said LTC Karl Jansen, USACE Buffalo District commander. "Stakeholder partnering and collaboration builds trust with the Public we serve and balancing human development with natural systems will preserve the Great Lakes Navigation System's infrastructure and environment for future generations." 

“We’re excited to have Buffalo District, including all of their talent and opportunities, as an EWN Proving Ground,” said Dr. Todd Bridges, Army Senior Research Scientist for Environmental Science and Program Manager for USACE’s EWN Program. “The District’s commitment to advancing and promoting EWN within the Great Lakes is going to create value regionally and nationally.”     

Many projects in the Buffalo District have already been identified as potential EWN projects, three examples are:   

Cleveland Harbor Green Breakwaters Project 

Off the shores of Cleveland Harbor, rising out of Lake Erie like a wave of concrete and stones, sits the Cleveland Breakwater offering 24,570 feet of safe navigation and protection for the harbor. 

The existing breakwaters provide some habitat for fish and invertebrates, but that result is purely an indirect and unplanned consequence. The habitat that exists usually consists of refuge provided by spaces between concrete or rock sections, while the rest of the structure is relatively inhospitable for most organisms due to the featureless nature of the materials. 

The Cleveland Harbor Breakwater project involves modifying the design of the standard concrete toe blocks used for breakwater maintenance at the Cleveland Harbor East Arrowhead breakwater to provide features that will create habitat opportunities for Great Lakes fish and invertebrates that would not otherwise be present. 

The study is examining the opportunities to create substantially more habitat surface on the breakwater by modifying the shape and surface texture of the constructed blocks using textured liners or modified walls in the concrete block forms. Three separate block modifications are being installed and studied to see how they perform as habitat:

  1. Grooved block surface texture to provide invertebrate and juvenile fish refuge
  2. Dimpled block surface texture to provide invertebrate habitat
  3. A protected indented shelf to serve as fish refuge and potential spawning areas 

Samples are currently being analyzed from the initial installations of blocks in the Spring of 2012 and 2014.  Early indications are that  some differences among the block types are evident, with the grooved and grooved shelf block often exhibiting the greatest abundances of algae (Cladophora spp.) and a variety aquatic invertebrates (Dreissenid mussels, oligochaetes, amphipods, etc.) colonized on them when compared to the dimpled or unmodified blocks. 

Successful implementation of the approach has considerable potential to be replicated at other Great Lakes breakwaters that routinely undergo operation and maintenance.  

Presque Isle Beneficial Use 

Presque Isle Peninsula is located on the southern shore of Lake Erie in the City of Erie, Pennsylvania.  The Peninsula acts as a natural breakwater to form and protect Erie Harbor, PA, and is home to Presque Isle State Park 

The demonstration concept involves placement of 1-3 scows of Erie Harbor sediment at three locations at the end of Presque Isle, off shore of Gull Point to prevent continued loss of habitat critical to the recovery of Great Lakes breeding populations of piping plover and other species. Erie Harbor dredging uses bottom dump scows that hold 1,500 cubic yards of sediment and require a minimum of 8 feet of water to open.  The project will monitor, analyze and evaluate the fate and transport of both the sand and silty clay fractions based on results of a tracer study to be performed as part of 2015 Erie Harbor dredging.  

“In the past we have placed over 200,000 cubic yards of material in an open lake placement site 3.3 miles away,” said Craig Forgette, Great Lakes Regional Sediment program manager. “The demonstration project will document how well natural littoral drift sorts the sediment and place coarser grained sediments near the shore to help restore Gull Point.” 

Niagara Falls Storage Site 

The Niagara Falls Storage Site (NFSS) is located in Lewiston, NY on a 191-acre, federally owned remnant of the larger Lake Ontario Ordnance Works (LOOW) site, which produced trinitrotoluene (TNT) during World War II.  The site was used later by the wartime Manhattan Engineer District (MED) to manage and store radiologic residues derived from the early atomic weapons programs.

The EWN concepts for this project focus on phytoremediation techniques that would address uranium contamination in groundwater.  Plantings would be designed to maximize evapotranspiration from the soil fill around impacted sanitary sewer lines and penetrate the abandoned sewer lines to scavenge residual water.  Plants will be evaluated for radionuclide uptake for use in other areas of the site where surface soils are impacted.  The intended outcome will minimize the transport of radionuclides from source media and lessen the potential for environmental cross contamination using non-invasive plants to mitigate radiologic exposures in the environment. 

“EWN gives us the opportunity to rethink traditional approaches to ongoing programs,” said Tony Friona, Great Lakes liaison for ERDC. “To be successful we need to focus on opportunities rather than constraints and use the language of opportunity.”