Expensive Stream Restoration Failures Will Diminish Our Nation’s Appetite for Restoration
The Baltimore Sun recently ran an insightful, front-page article titled, “Bulldozing a creek in order to help save it - City spending $10 million on disputed Stony Run job.”¯ As a resident of Montana, I don’t normally read the Sun, but someone forwarded me this article due to my reputation as somewhat of a maverick in this emerging industry of aquatic restoration.
In the Sun, reporter Tom Pelton called attention to an ongoing debate within our industry surrounding the validity of a popular “cookbook”¯ approach to restoration. Pelton reported that this controversial methodology was largely developed and popularized by Colorado hydrologist Dave Rosgen. Quoting Baltimore’s pollution control administrator William Stack, Pelton writes that Baltimore's project plan to reduce erosion of Stony Run's banks uses a modified Rosgen-type approach. The plan calls for bulldozing a wooded park and cutting down nearly 150 trees.
According to the Pelton’s article, Rosgen’s aggressive, formula-based approach to stream restoration has spawned a “legion of Rosgenauts,”¯ who then tend to adapt and apply versions of the formula to their own stream projects. But unlike a reliable recipe, Pelton points out that this cookbook approach has sometimes led to spectacular, expensive failures on the ground.
From describing the project supporters who believe Baltimore’s $10 million will be well spent on Stony Run, to the skeptics who warn that the aggressive approach being considered is outdated, discredited and destructive, Pelton was able to capture the intricate mix of science, art, and politics that defines nearly every stream restoration project.
While I haven’t any first-hand knowledge of the Stony Run project, I can say the little bit of information in the article about bulldozing trees sends off warning bells for me. My firm has been built on a philosophy of low-impact, natural approaches with a very tight disturbance envelope. We approach each project with the question, “How can we accomplish the most good with the least amount of disturbance?”¯
As one of the “old guys”¯ in this new industry of stream restoration I’ve been preaching for years against simplistic cookbook approaches to complex ecological problems, and the need for better industry standards when it comes to assessment and monitoring. I was thrilled to see this debate about the uncertainty associated with restoration and especially with aggressive, formula-based approaches finally reach the broader public consciousness. Getting a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, through the development of better industry standards for assessment and monitoring, is critical to industry advancement and to the true restoration of our freshwater resources.
For those involved in the Stony Run restoration, a friendly warning: In this fledgling industry it is definitely a case of buyer beware. My firm has been called in numerous times to repair very expensive, failed attempts at restoration. Around our offices we call these projects “re-restoration”¯ and in our experience they are typically the result of two things: improper assessment and/or a cookbook restoration strategy.
River restoration has become a $1 billion-a-year industry in the United States. My greatest fear is that with too many expensive failures our national appetite for restoration may be diminished. Despite the risk, restoring what we’ve historically damaged or degraded is the right thing to do. When approached with careful assessment and planning, and with the balanced input of a multidisciplinary team of professionals, restoration can be very successful. We applaud Baltimore’s leadership and its citizens for prioritizing the restoration of Stony Run, and will follow the project’s progress with interest.
Michael Sprague is president and founder of Trout Headwaters, Inc., (THI) an aquatic design/build firm and CEO of THI’s sister technology company, THI RiverWorks, Inc., both based in Livingston, Mont. Through his two companies Sprague has helped to advance sustainable river restoration technologies, becoming a leader in the field of stream bank biostabilization.