Critical evaluation of stream restoration practice: A Western New York case study
Bronner, Colleen Elizabeth
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To address degradation caused by past anthropogenic actions (e.g., stream channelization, installation of dams and levees), stream restoration activities have occurred in the U.S. and worldwide with the goal of returning ecosystem functions and services. As the number of projects have increased, a divide between the practitioners and research scientists has developed. Issues of contention include methods used, lack of engineering rigor, and effectiveness of stream restoration, both individual projects and the entire practice. It is uncertain whether the large annual U.S. expenditures spent on stream restoration is justified. Previous evaluations have cast doubt that stream restoration actions, primarily form-based, are improving ecological functions and social ecosystem services provided by streams. The divide between the practice and the science must be narrowed, however first it needs to be understood. A mixed methods approach, using field investigations, an online survey and semi-structured interviews, was used to critically evaluate the practice of stream restoration at a regional-scale. The intention was to evaluate the entire stream restoration process, including design, regulatory, construction and monitoring processes. The research characterized 1) the general practice using online survey and interview results; and 2) individual case study sites using field investigations and interview results. Incorporation of qualitative methods led to new insights on stream restoration practice by considering practitioner perspectives and experiences. Based on interviews and the online survey, it was determined that WNY is not a site of innovation for SR, however inhibitors of innovation were identified. Major inhibitors included: 1) fear of failure/liability concerns; 2) poor communication between academic and practitioner circles; 3) poor riparian management practices and other space constraints; 4) inaccurate stereotypes (e.g., engineers as nerdy computer crunchers); and 5) local politics (e.g., NY being a home-rule state). Although not a hotspot of innovation, the WNY study also provided insights into the practice-science divide. One of the emerging themes is that "science" is perceived differently by different individuals. To narrow the divide, therefore, requires research scientists to do a better job communicating how they define science and disseminating research through mechanisms easily available to practitioners (i.e., mechanisms other than peer-reviewed journal articles and academic conferences). More communication and interactions are needed between different organizations, agencies, and individuals working on and/or researching streams as there some strong stereotypes that may be broken down if different parties were interacting. These interactions could especially ease tensions between engineers and biologists/field practitioners, allowing engineers to communicate liability concerns, which are shared with many non-engineers (e.g., SWCDs, NYSDOT) and the need for adding more rigor to the design process under present day constraints. It is also recommended that stream bank stabilization (river engineering) should be separated from stream restoration as both serve different purposes; this is especially important due to recent mitigation policy changes favoring stream restoration as a mitigation strategy. In addition, it is recommended that focusing on riparian and watershed restoration over installation of in-stream structures may ease some of the tensions stemming from liability concerns, but will require the additional hurdle of getting municipalities on board.