A shovel, some sticks and stones, and a little elbow grease in the right spot is key to unlocking natural processes in streams for restoration. Science News recently detailed how research from Joe Wheaton and a cadre of researchers from Utah State University’s Department of Watershed Sciences is garnering national attention for its efficacy to restore riverscapes to healthier and more resilient states. Their proposed solution involves adding structures like wood, roots and beaver dams to change streamflow.
Nearly half of streams in the Unites States are in poor condition. Human activities like road building, land use conversion and unrealistic flood controls have altered their babbling, wandering states into straightened channels, largely devoid of the structure, roots, woody debris and beaver dams that can change how water flows through a riverscape. In many places, streams now flow too straight and too efficiently, preventing surrounding ecosystems from absorbing and banking that moisture, allowing vegetation to grow only along a narrow path closest to banks, and causing the entire riverscape to dry out earlier each summer.
The low-tech solutions that Wheaton and partners at the Natural Resources Conservation Service are promoting have been around for centuries, but there is new recognition of the critical role natural processes play in restoration. The concept was inspired by retired wildlife biologist Bill Zeedyk, and it doesn’t involve heavy backhoes or big budgets; just elbow grease and a bit of on-the-ground effort. The strategy is proving to be efficient, inexpensive and scalable, which is important—the United States has been spending more than $15 billion annually to repair waterways, and it’s hardly scratched the surface, Wheaton said. Plus, big budget and intensive projects are often not working to meaningfully improve the health of the natural infrastructure to recover endangered species and support declining ecosystems.
The vast majority of the country’s six million miles of waterways don’t look like the mighty Mississippi. They are small streams, the kind you can jump over. Many don’t even have channels (e.g. wet meadows). For these riverscapes, hand-built restoration interventions can work well, Wheaton said. A low-tech approach includes building beaver dam-like structures to entice the animal engineers to move in and get to work. It transforms vulnerable channels from little more than ditches, to rich and connected channel-floodplain and wetlands systems built, not just from highly erodible dirt, but with a carbon-fiber matrix of life, said Wheaton. These landscapes act as the ‘kidneys’ of the landscape to process and filter water, while also providing flood protection, fire protection and an important store for sequestering carbon and slowing down climate change. As America looks to repair its vulnerable and aging infrastructure, numerous federal agencies are looking to rebuild with similar investments in natural infrastructure.