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River restoration field booms, matures


Science article details trends in river restoration

A group of leading river scientists published a paper in the journal Science today, presenting first-of-its-kind research on the state of river restoration in the United States. Following on the heels of a related article published in the Journal of Applied Ecology that describes the five fundamental standards for ecologically sustainable river restoration, the papers document the maturing effort to reverse rising pollution levels and declining ecological health of rivers in the United States and around the world.

"River restoration is evolving from an art into a science. A critical first step in this evolution has been to document what is being done in the name of river restoration." said Dr. Emily Bernhardt the lead author of the Science paper by a team of 25 scientists that created the nation’s first comprehensive database of river and stream restoration projects.

Project records were obtained by a dedicated team of graduate student researchers led by University of Maryland Professor Margaret Palmer and Post-doctoral researcher, Emily Bernhardt. Bernhardt is now on the faculty at Duke University. Professor David Allan at the University of Michigan also helped lead the national effort. The students combed agency databases and file cabinets and made hundreds of phone calls to resource managers and restoration practitioners.

"According to our research, river restoration is growing exponentially in this country," said Dr. Margaret Palmer, University of Maryland and another author. "There is enormous demand for this kind of work to improve water quality, restore wildlife habitats, and create natural spaces that people can enjoy."

The term river restoration applies to activities such as restoring wetlands to filter pollution, reforesting riverbanks to curb erosion, recreating the natural river channel to reduce downstream flooding, and removing dams to allow fish to migrate freely up and downstream. According to the authors of the paper, at least $14 – 15 billion has been invested in river restoration since 1990 – an average of $1 billion per year. That’s a lot of individual efforts – the average cost per project is just $45,000. California, the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and the Pacific Northwest are hotspots of restoration work.

"It’s no mystery why river restoration is booming," said Andrew Fahlund, Vice President for Protection and Restoration at American Rivers. "Rivers in good condition more readily meet the needs of the surrounding community than polluted and degraded rivers."

According to the authors of the Science article, more consistent monitoring of projects after they are completed and sharing this data with other practitioners is the next step in the evolution of the river restoration field. Only 10% of the 37,000 projects in the database include any mention of monitoring effectiveness although some states are investing more in evaluation than others.

"Figuring out what does and does not work in individual restoration projects is the key to improving future river restoration efforts," said Dr. Judy Meyer, University of Georgia and another author. "Every organization that invests in a river restoration project should commit to monitoring the work and making those results available to their peers in the field."

"I’m optimistic about the future of river restoration in this country," said Dr. David Allan, University of Michigan. "We have an incredible suite of options for healing our nation’s rivers. We just need the funding and political will to use them."

Reporters are encouraged to contact participating river scientists in their area to learn more about local river restoration projects. Tours of these projects are available as well as interviews of a variety of partner organizations. Contact information for each region is also listed below.

Andrew Fahlund | EurekAlert!
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