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School of Thought: Design Approaches to Stream Restoration

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to present to the Watershed Stewards Academy Annual Spring into Action Conference on the topic of stream restoration and the various design approaches and philosophies used today. The point of the presentation was to objectively present the tenets of the most commonly employed schools of stream restoration design in our region: Natural Channel Design (NCD), Regenerative Steam Conveyance (RSC), and Legacy Sediment Removal (LSR). The goal was to present these from the perspective of a contractor who doesn't have a horse in this race to inspire a healthy conversation. EQR objectively builds all these approaches, whereas most engineers and designers are very much opinionated about what approach is most effective.

As it turns out, there are some strong opinions out there and a very spirited discussion ensued! There are pros and cons to each approach, but we mostly heard about the cons: NCD is rock-heavy, RSC is prone to failure, and LSR requires too much clearing.

While focusing on the drawbacks of each approach sounds negative, what we ended up debating was the priority we place as a community on short-term vs long term benefits, and what we are willing to sacrifice to achieve ecological restoration. The general dialectic is lighter versus heavier intervention in our waterways which is precisely the discussion I wish we had more often!

The lesson learned for me is that the cons of each steam restoration approach are generally borne of constraints that we the community put on our streams through infrastructure protection, poor watershed management, and general floodplain encroachment. In rural locations where constraints are few we are freer to let the streams wiggle into equilibrium with lighter interventions. However, the hard fact is that we live in a highly urbanized and sprawl-affected region and we won't give streams the room to act like steams!

Therefore, if we as a society aren't willing to give up the utilities, roads, homes, and general built environment that squeeze our streams into their currently degraded state, then we force ourselves to make sacrifices through heavier interventions and bigger investments in long-term maintenance and repairs. There is a direct relationship here-- and no silver bullets!

I'm reminded of Mencken's wisdom here: "For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and WRONG." Even though it's clear that no one approach is perfect, and stream restoration isn't going to save the Bay on its own, I'm encouraged by the constant innovation in our industry and the passion to try new techniques and do better by our waterways.

It will never be easy and if it seems too good to be true it probably isn't. However, the good news is that as a discipline we get better every day at dealing with the complexities of stream restoration, both scientific and political, and there isn't a more passionate or hard-working community out there than the ecological restoration community. There is no one clear solution, and it will always take sacrifices to achieve true progress, but I know from the improving health of the Bay we're already making a difference, and it will only get better as the science and politics catch up. 

- Liam O'Meara, EQR President


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