"I was out in a stream where there was a huge sand bed and it was loaded with water moccasins. While I was working, I'd sink in up to my hips and my boots would get full of sand and the snakes were everywhere," recalls Russell Manley of an erosion control project he managed in Florida.
Kevin Middlebrooks and Ryan Jones, his colleagues at Environmental Services Inc. in Stone Mountain, nod in agreement that they sometimes have to do some dirty work, but it's just part of a fluvial geomorphologist's job.
In plain language, under the advisement of the Army Corps of Engineers, these guys are project scientists who work on streams and wetlands to offset the impact of developers, and in most cases, restore these areas to the way nature created them.
"Ninety-nine percent of the streams we work with were impacted by agriculture. Over the years farmers straightened streams for irrigation, which impaired the natural water flow," Manley said.
Ironically, when viewing a vacant lot, what might look like a natural setting to most people could be an impaired stream not flowing properly. Often, it's only when a developer comes in to build on the property that the impairment of the water flow is noticed and can then be corrected, thus improving the environment.
Of course, no one wants to see a drugstore on every corner and no one wants to see any property overdeveloped.
"But progress is inevitable. What's important is that the progress is handled responsibly," Jones said. "There's a science to what we do. If I didn't know I was improving the environment, I wouldn't be doing this work."
Many of us, including myself, might look in disgust at bulldozers ripping away at the land. But if any of that soil is shifting around a stream, guys like Manley, Jones and Middlebrooks are there making sure whatever is happening is for the betterment of the environment.
"We improve water quality by increasing the oxygen content and we reduce erosion with biodegradable materials," Manley said. "We remove invasive plants like privet and replace them with indigenous native species. And we increase the macroinvertibrate (bugs you can see) populations in the water."
Manley likes to use as an example a creek in Candler Park that had been impaired since the early 1900s as a result of a poor development plan.
"Nothing was living in it, but within three days after restoration, creek chubs were swimming in the water."
I know, with Earth Day coming up, it's not a good time to ask people to get all excited about developers. But there are some fluvial geomorphologists out there who just might deserve a big hug.
Susan Larson is a Lilburn resident. E-mail her at email@example.com.