The state of river restoration in the US


ATHENS, GA. More than a third of U.S. rivers are in failing health due to pollution and other factors, according to the EPA. In Georgia, segments of some 600 streams fail to meet Clean Water Act standards. So from big rivers like the Colorado to small streams like Georgia's Tanyard Branch, public and private groups are working to restore the health of U.S. waterways.

But what works best? Which practices can be tailored to certain regions? What does it cost? The need for healthy rivers, clean drinking water, vigorous fisheries and outdoor recreation demands research-based answers to these questions.

Top river-systems experts, including two UGA ecologists, report on the state of efforts to restore U.S. streams and rivers in today's issue of the journal Science. About three years ago, researchers from eight universities and river conservation groups formed a partnership to improve the "science and practice of river restoration." The idea was to rigorously evaluate current practices and use research to guide future restoration efforts.

The group began by compiling the first comprehensive database on nationwide river restoration projects. Judy Meyer, UGA Distinguished Research Professor of Ecology, and Elizabeth Sudduth, a master's degree graduate from the UGA Institute of Ecology now at Duke University, led the effort to collect and analyze data for the Southeast.

"This database will help scientists, practitioners and policy makers think more holistically about when restoration needs to happen and help set priorities," Meyer said.

Today's article presents the group's first analysis of the more than 37,000 current river restoration projects included in the National River Restoration Science Synthesis database.

The authors identified 13 restoration project types and their average costs based on goals, such as recreation, curbing erosion of river banks, dam removal, habitat improvement, storm water management and water quality management. They found that most projects involved stretches of streams less than a mile long and more than 85 percent were implemented in the Pacific Northwest, California or the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The authors also identified data that needs to be reported to help guide future efforts. For example, projects should report information about costs: Only 58 percent of the projects in the database did that. Based on those reports, the researchers conservatively estimate that about $1 billion has been spent on restoration projects annually since 1990. And only 10 percent of projects monitored and assessed results. For those projects that did measure results, most did not evaluate restoration impact on the ecosystem.

The authors recommend that restoration projects evaluate whether environmental benefits have been achieved. In an article published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in April, the same group outlined five criteria to measure a restoration project's ecological success: set a guiding vision, measure ecosystem improvements, cause no permanent damage during implementation, create a sustainable ecosystem that requires minimal intervention, and conduct pre- and post-project assessments.

"Doing a large group study can put what's going on in the Southeast into a national perspective," Meyer said. "We can see how we're doing." For example, she said that 27 percent of restoration projects in the Southeast include post-project monitoring, which is better than the national average.

Most projects in Georgia are done for riparian management, water quality management, bank stabilization and channel reconfiguration. Project goals are similar in other Southeastern states, although land acquisition for stream restoration is less frequently done in Georgia than in other Southeastern states included in the database.

Median cost of restoration projects in Georgia is $57,000 in contrast to $403,000 for the Southeast. Georgia has approximately one restoration project for each 1,000 kilometers or 621 miles of stream; North Carolina has eight and Michigan has 10.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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