Restoring Rivers and Streams


Increasingly, management agencies are attempting to reverse degradation to rivers through ecosystem restoration, whereby efforts are made to remediate, improve or return degraded rivers back to their historic form and function. River restoration has become a booming industry throughout the developed world, with a wide variety of methods currently employed. Common activities include: reshaping channels back to historic or reference dimensions, planting riparian vegetation, and constructing high‐quality habitat for fish. The goals driving these restoration projects are also diverse, ranging from improving water quality to achieving improved aesthetic and recreational benefits. Restoration efforts may improve local conditions by reducing bank erosion, reducing stream temperatures and increasing dissolved oxygen concentrations, but to date there has been little empirical evidence for catchment‐scale improvements in water quality, aquatic biodiversity, or recovery of sensitive aquatic taxa.

Key Concepts:

  • River restoration: The process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed.

  • Rehabilitation: The act of restoration to an improved or former condition.

  • Compensatory mitigation: Creation, restoration, enhancement or preservation of a river, stream and/or wetland designed to offset permitted losses of ecosystem function.

  • Natural channel design: Restoration of the dimension, pattern and profile of a disturbed river system by emulating the natural, stable river.

  • Meander: Curvature of stream channels, measured as high levels of sinuosity (S shape).

  • Floodplain: Flat area adjacent to rivers that is subject to erosion and deposition due to flooding outside of the channel.

  • Riparian forest: Vegetation alongside a river channel that provides important services to rivers such as shades, organic material inputs, sediments and nutrient retentions.

Keywords: river restoration; stream restoration; ecosystem structure; ecosystem function; mitigation

Figure 1.

Number of peer‐reviewed articles (black circles) and popular press articles (white circles) related to river restoration. Citations were derived from a search for ‘stream restoration’ or ‘river restoration’ in ISI Web of Science and Lexis Nexis Environmental News. Modified from Bernhardt et al. . Reproduced by permission of AAAS.

Figure 2.

Photographs of common restoration practices: (a) an urban ‘daylighting’ project in which a formerly piped stream is uncovered; (b) installation of a natural channel design project; (c) a rock weir structure installed for grade control within a natural channel design project; (d) removal of invasive species from riparian areas; (e) improved, large diameter road culverts installed to allow fish passage and (f) bank stabilization with root wads and coir fibre matting. Photo credits: (a) Chris Benton, (b) Barbara Doll, (c) Emily Bernhardt, (d) Jennifer Follstad Shah, (e) Marcelo Ardón and (f) Emily Bernhardt.



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Further Reading

Darby S and Sear D (2008) River Restoration: Managing the Uncertainty in Restoring Physical Habitat. London, UK: Wiley.

Dean C (2008). Follow the silt. The New York Time, 24 June.

Hassett BA, Palmer MA and Bernhardt ES (2007) Evaluating stream restoration in the Chesapeake Bay watershed through practitioner interviews. Restoration Ecology 15: 563–572.

Palmer MA and Allan JD (2006) Restoring Rivers. Issues in Science and Technology

Sudduth EB, Meyer JL and Bernhardt ES (2007) Stream restoration practices in the Southeastern United States. Restoration Ecology 15: 573–583.

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Ardón, Marcelo, and Bernhardt, Emily S(Mar 2009) Restoring Rivers and Streams. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020148]