Restoring polluted rivers hindered by lack of coordination


DURHAM, N.C. -- If the nation's increasingly polluted rivers are to be rehabilitated, the restoration projects must be better organized and coordinated, according to a national group of experts in the field.

To aid this coordination, the researchers have performed the first-ever analysis of currently available information, which they compiled in a database, called the National River Restoration Science Synthesis (NRRSS) The 25 researchers reported their findings in an article in the Friday April 29, 2005, issue of the journal Science. First author of the policy paper was Duke University biologist Emily Bernhardt.

Assessing 37,099 NRRSS projects included as of July, 2004, the researchers concluded that restoration efforts have "increased exponentially throughout the last decade, paralleling the increase in media and scientific reports."

With more than one-third of the nation's rivers now listed as impaired or polluted, "river restoration has become a booming, highly profitable business and will play an increasingly prominent role in environmental management and policy decisions," their report said.

However, the report's authors wrote that a comprehensive assessment of the success of this rehabilitation is impossible since available information remains "piecemeal."

Specifically, the authors' analysis of NRRSS data found that "only 10 percent of all project records indicated any form of assessment or monitoring occurred." Furthermore, only 58 percent of those records had information on project costs. Meanwhile, "a large proportion of the total dollars spent on restoration are spent on a few, more expensive projects," their report added.

"Because most project records were inadequate to extract even the most rudimentary information on project actions and outcomes, it is apparent that many opportunities to learn from successes and failures, and thus improve future practice, are being lost," the report concluded.

Said Bernhardt, "I think that there is a lot of potential for us to restore rivers that we have destroyed. But we're not using the funds that have been allocated for restoration as effectively as we could be." Bernhardt is an assistant professor of biogeochemistry in Duke's biology department and is also affiliated with Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.

Bernhardt, Margaret Palmer at the University of Maryland in College Park and J. David Allan at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor are all authors of the Science report who have led in the developing the NRRSS database.

Other coauthors of the Science report include Brooke Hassett of Duke; Gretchen Alexander of the University of Michigan; Katie Barnas and Steve Katz of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Science Center in Seattle; Shane Brooks and P. Sam Lake of Monash University in Australia; Jamie Carr and David Hart of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Clayton and Peter Goodwin of the University of Idaho at Boise; Cliff Dahm and Jennifer Follstad-Shah of the University of New Mexico; David Galat and T.K. O'Donnell of the University of Missouri; Steve Gloss of the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson, Robin Jenkinson of the University of Idaho at Moscow; G. Matt Kondolf, Laura Pagano and Rebecca Lave of the University of California, Berkeley; Bruce Powell of the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver; and Judy Meyer and Elizabeth Sudduth of the University of Georgia.

NRRSS is funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Altria and the Environmental Protection Agency. Individual regional teams working on the NRRSS project are receiving a variety of additional funding support from other sources.

"We started the NRRSS project with the goal of coming up with standards for success, what's working and what's not working," Bernhardt said. "However, we've found that we can't even ask those questions because the data don't exist to make that kind of judgment."

Bernhardt and her fellow Science authors are now working to "come up with examples of what it actually means to do restoration," she said.

She cited as one example of a restoration project near Duke's campus an urban nature reserve and public trail being constructed by the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, which has received two grants from surrounding Durham County. The association is also seeking help from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Wetland Restoration Program to restore sections of that stream within the city of Durham, N.C., according to its website,

Bernhardt also noted that the demolition of the Lowell Mill Dam on the Little River in Johnston County, N.C. is scheduled to begin on April 28, 2005, in an effort to provide an unobstructed migration corridor for shad. The environmental effects of that dam removal project, which is funded by Restoration Systems, LLC, will be monitored by Adam Riggsbee, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she said.

A North Carolina "success story" cited by the NRRSS's own website is the Tulula Wetlands site in mountainous Graham County, which the N.C. Department of Transportation purchased for protection in "mitigation" of surface transportation projects elsewhere in that region,

Bernhardt's own expertise is in natural processes that can remove excess nitrogen from upstream rivers before nitrogen-bearing compounds can foment algae blooms and occasional fish kills in coastal areas downstream.

"Streamside forests and wetlands are very effective in filtering pollutants of all kinds," she said. "But one thing we do when we degrade rivers is to channelize them. That channelization converts these rivers from functioning ecosystems to efficient gutters, and reduces their ability to protect downstream systems from contaminants."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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