“Let The Ecosystem Do The Work” – New Resource For Restoring Streams Simply
Free restoration manual explains effective & inexpensive low-tech methods for improving streams
The streams that thread through working lands in the American West sustain plants and animals, people and livestock. Unfortunately, thousands of miles of these precious waterways are degraded. This leaves rangelands in the arid West more sensitive to droughts, floods, and wildfire.
Traditional approaches for restoring streams often involve costly fixes that change the shape of the waterway using sophisticated designs and heavy construction machinery. While this “form-based restoration” is appropriate for certain areas, it’s too expensive to re-work all of the streams in need.
Luckily, low-tech “process-based restoration” is emerging as an efficient and effective way to expand upon existing restoration efforts and restore more watersheds. This approach includes using low-tech tools—simple hand-built structures made from natural materials that have short-term lifespans—to initiate processes that allow Mother Nature to heal itself.
“It’s about letting the ecosystem do the work after a little jumpstart from us,” explains Jeremy Maestas, an ecologist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Since low-tech restoration projects are usually a fraction of the cost of traditional approaches, resource managers can treat more stream miles using these methods. Also, this low-tech approach gives land managers more options to address the vast network of wadeable streams in rural headwaters, which typically haven’t received the same attention as large waterways.
In order to scale up, more people need to understand the principles underlying this new restoration approach and how to implement it. That’s why the USDA-NRCS partnered with Pheasants Forever and Utah State University Restoration Consortium to create a new, free design manual: Low-Tech Process-Based Restoration of Riverscapes.
This resource provides the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind the ‘what.’ Not only does it give practitioners nuts-and-bolts information on how to plan and implement low-tech restoration, it also summarizes the scientific ideas behind it. Jeremy Maestas, manual co-author
Joseph Wheaton, a fluvial geomorphologist at Utah State University and lead author of the manual, explains that many of the modern-day problems facing streams can be traced back to their “structural starvation”.
“These days, most streams are too efficient of drains,” says Wheaton. “They’re not resilient to floods, droughts, or wildfires, nor do they provide the structurally diverse habitat that fish and wildlife need to thrive.”
Re-introducing wood or beavers to streams adds the structural complexity needed to set off a chain reaction that helps reverse channel incision, reconnect floodplains, and keep streamsides greener longer. Low-tech structures can be used to mimic natural processes—like wood accumulation or beaver dams—that slow down and spread out water. This helps store water longer on the landscape and minimize the impacts of floods, droughts, and fires.
Beaver dam analogues (BDAs) and post-assisted log structures (PALS) are the main tools described in the manual. BDAs were first used on Bridge Creek in Oregon over decade ago as a way to attract beaver back into the watershed to improve ecosystem function.
Extensive research on Bridge Creek showed BDAs were highly effective at initiating process-based restoration, producing population-level benefits for threatened steelhead. A recent study also found vegetation productivity has increased by 25% because of the project, suggesting that low-tech restoration pays dividends for ranchers too.
To capitalize on the growing popularity of these low-tech, process-based restoration approaches, Maestas and Wheaton teamed up to host nearly a dozen field workshops for resource managers all around the West. The NRCS, Pheasants Forever, Utah State University and local partners have sponsored these hands-on field trainings where participants learn how to build BDAs, PALS, and other techniques to restore degraded creeks.
“The manual provides important information on how low-tech structures fit into the big picture goal of restoring self-sustaining, healthy streams at scales that matter,” explains Wheaton.
The new manual was informed by input from workshop participants as well as lessons learned from applying these approaches across the West. It gives practitioners step-by-step instructions for how to plan, design, and build low-tech structures. Importantly, the manual also lays out 10 principles that guide the whole approach.
“Our goal is to get more people off the sidelines and into the creek to participate in restoration,” says Maestas. “It’s quickly become a popular practice, since the structures are easy to build, results are easy to see, and almost anyone can do it.”