I have pondered this question for more than three weeks, and I have realized that it is a more complex question than I originally thought.
Historically, humans resolved problems caused by their interactions with streams by focusing on one main issue: how can we control the water to have it impact society as little as possible? So we piped and hardened stream banks, straightened channels, and basically did everything possible to get water off site. It didn’t work. We ended up causing more problems further downstream, such as bank erosion, flooding, channel migration, and nutrient overload. In the areas where we had altered the stream, we also lost stream function, riparian and aquatic habitat, floodplain connection, and water quality. There had to be a better way.
People started looking at natural streams and created design methodologies which focused more on replicating the natural, physical processes of the stream. The thought was if we could replicate the physical processes, surely the ecological, biological, and chemical processes would follow. Are these efforts “biomimicry?” As we are finding out through research of these sites after a decade or so, restoring the physical function of a stream does not often mean that the other processes will follow– at least not as quickly as we thought they would, and perhaps not at all.
Can we really mimic a natural, healthy stream? If this question is asked to different people throughout the stream restoration field, many different answers will be heard. Some might say yes, if the conditions are right. Others will tell you no, it is impossible to restore a stream. Some may say that we can restore a stream for specific functions, or to provide a template that can adjust to future conditions. My response would be to ask this question instead: should we look at more than just the stream?
Streams are only a piece of the puzzle. So many other factors, such as climate change, development practices, and industry, are affecting streams. To truly restore a stream, you must restore the watershed. How do we restore a watershed?
The first step that would have the most impact is education. By educating others about how their actions affect the streams within their watershed we can have the greatest influence on the stream. We need to utilize this education to affect the way our communities are governed and developed. Such as embracing interagency coordination and communication, integrating planning efforts, using innovative design methods, and changing the way we approach life. All it takes is one small step forward by one individual, and others will eventually follow. So my advice to you in terms of your watershed . . . have you taken that one small step?
Further ReadingGet to know Senior Restoration Ecologist, Rachel Spadafore
Get to know Julia Richter, Water Resources Engineer
Get to know Restoration Landscape Architect, Sarai Carter
Get to know Water Resources Engineer, Ellie Month
Get to know Jensen Hufnagel, Operations Assistant
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An American Ecologist in New Zealand: Part III
An American Ecologist in New Zealand: Part I