MONTGOMERY - At first glance, the marsh repository for golfers' balls at the 16th hole at White Deer Golf Course, resembles an overgrown, unkept area where weeds have taken over and ground-keepers gave up.
Upon closer inspection it's actually a man-made area with a beauty and purpose all its own.
"They're corridors of experiences," said Alice Trowbridge of the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership, of what are called buffer zones and floodplain restoration areas, two of which were highlighted Friday as part of the Lycoming County Chesapeake Bay Tributary Strategy Advisory Committee fall tour.
Situated deep in the boundaries of the public golf course near Route 15 lies the Black Hole Creek Floodplain Restoration Project, a wetlands that soaks up runoff water that otherwise would rush into the main stem of the creek and another tributary and lead to pollution of the river from nitrogen and other nutrients, a result of nature, including goose dung.
Getting nutrients out of the smaller waterways becomes important because they dump into the river, which flows south and eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay, a body of water that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has long sought to clean up by having communities reduce their nutrient content and sediment flows.
The Black Hole project has become an economic driver for the course Pro Shop, said Megan Lehman, environmental planner for the Lycoming County Department of Planning and Community Development.
While Lehman half-joked about the golfers' swings coming up short or going awry, she and Andrew Korzon, a landscape designer with LandStudies of Lititz, were serious about the benefits of such floodplains.
The projects at golf course and along the river's edge at Montgomery are products of a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant. The cost for the floodplain restorations were estimated at $280,000, but the cost of the project for Black Hole Creek was $180,000, leaving money left over for the Montgomery buffer zone, according to Korzon. In addition, the state Department of Environmental Protection also helped to fast-forward the permitting process, Lehman said.
It works by the sediment and nutrient loads in the water being removed naturally, Korzon said. "It's critical to get the water out of the channels and into the floodplain," he said. The slower moving water means less erosion and that means less of the sediment and nutrients entering the streams and river, he added.
Topsoil collected is stored in a clump nearby and golfers on carts entering or leaving the location wouldn't recognize the soil depository that is overgrown with grass and weeds.
Signs are situated along the pathway prohibiting people from walking into the floodplain and disturbing the balance of nature.
"Look," said Harvey Katz, a retired National Wildlife and Fish Commission worker at the Black Hole Creek project, holding up muddy golf balls.
The buffer zones adjust to the season, changing their look from spring, to summer and then fall and winter. Newly planted seedlings and grass that were as short as the sprouts of hair on a man's crewcut in the spring quickly become waist-high with greenery, colorful wildflowers and the flutter of butterflies.
The riparian buffer at Montgomery Borough Park has grown so densely in the borough that Mayor Andrew Onufrak II, while taking the tour, discovered a marijuana plant growing about shoulder-high in the thickness. He quickly pulled it out of the grounds and called police.
"It's hemp," Katz said sniffing the sweet odor.
Deviating some from the tour of the buffer zones, during a committee meeting in between visits, Katz said he is writing an article on the environmental pressures in Loyalsock State Forest, particularly the Rock Run area, site of dispute because of natural gas drilling companies desire to tap into the Marcellus Shale play beneath land in the state forest.
"These are ecological services that nature has given - without a bill," Katz said of the earth's natural wonder.
The buffers contain native plant species such as Eastern Redbud, Swamp Milkwood, Black Willow, Winterberm, Grey Dogwood, Soft Rush and Marginal Woodfern.
Keeping and preserving Black Hole Creek is vital for the health of the river and nearby campground, according to Becky Sanguedolce, president of the Blackhole Creek Watershed Association and owner of the campground that draws tourists from spring through fall, especially during the Little League World Series.
Regarding the Black Hole project, a tributary that comes out of ground owned by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, has piqued the interest of U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Cogan Station, who has been asked to intercede. The tributary on the prison property that sweeps into the floodplain has goose feces in it and adds to the nitrogen problem, Korzon said.
Katz said he has seen evidence of mussels, with shells as large as the palm of a hand, in the waterway near the golf course hole.
The committee also learned that while the EPA reports the state overall has surpassed its overall milestone target for removing phosphorus, another nutrient that is getting into water, one that is costing wastewater treatment plants to remove, the state is on track to meet its target for nitrogen reduction. Sediment loads, however, increased in 2011 and 2102.
For the borough, the ground keep Adams Creek from putting too much nitrogen into the waterways that must end up being treated.
The vegetation adjacent to the river has roots that create void spaces. When water runoff occurs, instead of its ponding and flooding, it is absorbed in the ground and filtered, helping to recharge the groundwater supplies. This process removes nitrogen, slows runoff and the erosion of soil.
The buffer zones also connect people to the river. Montgomery is one of the rivertowns along the 500-mile corridor of the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership projects, Trowbridge said.
"It helps us get back to nature," she said.