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The once-lush green meadow at the entrance of York County's Nixon Park was a bustle of activity Wednesday as yellow excavators worked the earth.

In a few months, the machines will be gone and so will the meadow where horses once grazed.

In its place will be a new feature for the county park — a wetlands habitat.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the nature center and (the county parks system) to add this," said Francis Velazquez, a naturalist with the county's parks. "It's such a win-win project."

The wetlands, which are being built to replace a habitat being disturbed by an Interstate 83 improvement project, will allow the 190-acre park in Springfield Township to extend its hiking trails and will be used as a teaching tool.

Ground was broken last week, and the majority of the project is expected to be completed by Thanksgiving, Velazquez said, adding that crews might have to return in the spring to do additional work.

The project: As part of the project, a couple of acres of land once owned by Lost & Found Horse Rescue and acquired by the county in 2010 will be converted into wetlands. An unnamed stream that meanders through the property will be reconstructed.

Over the years, the force of the water cut into the stream banks, causing the stream to unnaturally snake through the property. The stream, at one point, makes a 180-degree turn and runs parallel to itself, Velazquez said.

Part of the work includes moving the stream to a lower point in the meadow, he said.

Some wetlands developed naturally on the land over the years, but workers have to dig and create new ones.

And the work has to be precise, said Lee Erwin, owner of Seven Valleys-based Aquatic Resource Restoration Co., which specializes in wetland and stream restoration and was awarded the $844,287 contract for the project.

GPS units are attached to either side of the bulldozer's blade to make sure dirt is being moved where it should be, and that the right depth is being cut into the earth, Erwin explained.

"An inch difference in water depth can affect what animals and plants will live in the wetlands," Velazquez said.

Wetlands: The wetlands habitat will be a critically important ecosystem teeming with life, such as amphibious animals and reptiles, he said.

Plants in wetlands help clean water by absorbing some pollutants. Some of that water then filters into the ground, helping to refill the aquifer.

The project also includes a boardwalk and bridge section over the stream, a parking area and an outdoor classroom.

The trail that will run through the wetlands will link up with the park's existing trails and, in the future, will connect with the Hollow Creek Greenway.

Because of the tie-in with the greenway, hikers will be able to walk the roughly 12 miles from Reynolds Mill Road to Kain County Park, Velazquez said.

Funding: A large portion of funding — $593,387— for the project is coming from the state Department of Transportation because its project at Mount Rose Avenue, I-83 Exit 18, in Spring Garden Township, is disturbing wetlands there.

Springfield Township and Loganville are putting forth $51,384 each, said Tammy Klunk, county parks director.

The county kicked in the remaining $148,131, she said.

Mike Crochunis, a PennDOT spokesman, said when wetlands are disturbed by a roadwork project, they must be restored or replaced.

"So many of them are secluded and people can't get to them easily," he said. "We're trying to be good environmental stewards."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com.

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