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.



Anonymous (2002) Restoring damaged lands. The Economist, 2 August.

Baron JS, Poff NL, Angermeier PL et al. (2002) Meeting ecological and societal needs for freshwater. Ecological Applications 12: 1247–1260.

Beman M, Arrigo KR and Matson PA (2005) Agricultural runoff fuels large phytoplankton blooms in vulnerable areas of the ocean. Nature 434: 211–214.

Benda LE, Poff NL, Tague C et al. (2002) How to avoid train wrecks when using science in environmental problem solving. BioScience 52: 1127–1136.

Bernhardt ES and Palmer MA (2007) Restoring streams in an urbanizing world. Freshwater Biology 52: 738–751.

Bernhardt ES, Palmer MA, Allan JD et al. (2005) Synthesizing US river restoration efforts. Science 308: 636–637.

Bernhardt ES, Sudduth EB, Palmer MA et al. (2007) Restoring rivers one reach at a time: results from a survey of U.S. river restoration practitioners. Restoration Ecology 15: 482–493.

Bousquin SG, Anderson DH, Colangelo DJ et al. (2008) Kissimmee Basin. Chapter 11 in South Florida Environmental Report Volume I: The South Florida Environment – Water Year 2007. South Florida Water Management District, West Palm Beach, FL.

Bousquin SG, Anderson DH, Cheek MD et al. (2009) Kissimmee Basin. Chapter 11 in South Florida Environmental Report Volume I: The South Florida Environment – Water Year 2008. South Florida Water Management District, West Palm Beach, FL.

Brooks SS and Lake PS (2007) River restoration in Victoria, Australia: changes in the wind, and none too soon. Restoration Ecology 15: 584–591.

Buijse AD, Coops H, Staras L et al. (2002) Restoration strategies for river floodplains along large lowland rivers in Europe. Freshwater Biology 47: 889–907.

Cairns J (1991) Restoration ecology: a major opportunity for ecotoxicologists. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 10: 429–432.

Carpenter D, Schwartz J, Slate L et al. (2004) The status of urban stream restoration in the United States. Proceedings of the 2004 World Water and Environmental Resources Congress Salt Lake City, UT.

Craig LS, Palmer MA, Richardson DC et al. (2008) Stream restoration strategies for reducing river nitrogen loads. Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 6. doi: 10.1890/070080.

Cohn JP (2001) Resurrecting the dammed: a look at Colorado River Restoration. BioScience 51: 998–1003.

Dobson AP, Bradshaw AD and Baker JM (1997) Hopes for the future: restoration ecology and conservation biology. Science 277: 515–521.

Doyle MW, Stanley EH, Havlick DG et al. (2008) Aging infrastructure and ecosystem restoration. Science 319: 286–287.

Dudgeon D (2005) River management for conservation of freshwater biodiversity in monsoonal Asia. Ecology and Society 10: 15.

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) (2000) National Water Quality Inventory. Washington DC: Environmental Protection Agency.

Henry CP, Amoros C and Roset N (2002) Restoration ecology of riverine wetlands: a 5‐year post‐ operation survey on the Rhone River, France. Ecological Engineering 18: 543–554.

Hilderbrand RH, Watts AC and Randle AM (2005) The myths of restoration ecology. Ecology and Society 10: 19–29.

Kondolf GM (2006) River restoration and meanders. Ecology and Society 11: 42.

Kondolf GM, Boulton AJ, O'Daniel S et al. (2006) Process‐based ecological river restoration: visualizing three‐dimensional connectivity and dynamic vectors to recover lost linkages. Ecology and Society 11: 5.

Malakoff D (2004) Profile: Dave Rosgen: The River Doctor. Science 305: 937–939.

Nijland HJ and Cals MJR (2001) Conference considerations, conclusions and recommendations. In: Nijland HJ and Cals MJR (eds) River Restoration in Europe: Practical Approaches. Proceeding of the Conference on River Restoration, pp. 17–30. Lelystad, The Netherlands: Institute for Inland Water Management and Waste Water Treatment/RIZA.

NRC (National Research Council) (1992) Restoration of Aquatic Ecosystems: Science, Technology, and Public Policy. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

NRC (National Research Council) (1996) Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

NRC (National Research Council) (1999) Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

NRC (National Research Council) (2006) Progress Toward Restoring the Everglades. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

Palmer M, Bernhardt ES, Chornesky E et al. (2004) Ecology for a crowded planet. Science 304: 1251–1252.

Palmer MA and Bernhardt ES (2006) Hydroecology and river restoration: ripe for research and synthesis. Water Resources Research 42: W03S07. doi: 10.1029/2005WR04354.

Palmer MA, Bernhardt ES, Allan JD et al. (2005) Standards for ecologically successful river restoration. Journal of Applied Ecology 42: 208–217.

Parish F (2004) A review of river restoration experience in east Asia. In: Parish F, Mohkyar M, Abdullah ARB and May CO (eds) River Restoration in Asia; Proceedings of the East Asia Regional Seminar on River Restoration, pp. 14–23. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Global Environmental Centre and Department of Irrigation and Drainage.

Pedersen ML, Friberg N, Skriver J, Baattrup‐Pedersen A and Larsen SE (2007) Restoration of Skjern River and its valley – Short‐term effects on river habitats, macrophytes and macroinvertebrates. Ecological Engineering 30: 145–156.

Poff NL, Allan JD, Palmer MA et al. (2003) River flows and water wars: emerging science for environmental decision making. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1: 298–306.

Postel S and Richter B (2003) Rivers for Life: Managing Waters for People and Nature. Washington DC: Island Press.

Pringle CM (2001) Hydrologic connectivity and the management of biological reserves: a global perspective. Ecological Applications 11: 981–998.

Rabalais NN, Turner RE and Wiseman WJ (2002) Gulf of Mexico hypoxia, aka “The dead zone”. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 33: 235–263.

Ricciardi A and Rasmussen JB (1999) Extinction rates of North American freshwater fauna. Conservation Biology 13: 1220–1222.

Riggsbee JA, Julian JP, Doyle MW and Wetzel RG (2007) Suspended sediment, dissolved organic carbon, and dissolved nitrogen export during the dam removal process. Water Resources Research 43: W09414.

Roni P, Hanson K and Beechie T (2008) Global review of the physical and biological effectiveness of stream habitat rehabilitation techniques. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 28: 856–890.

Rosgen DL (1994) A classification of natural rivers. Catena 22: 169–199.

Rosgen DL (1996) Applied River Morphology. Pagosa Springs, Colorado: Wildland Hydrology.

Sand‐Jensen K (2000) Human Impact on Freshwater Ecosystems. In: Levin S (ed.) Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, pp. 89–108. San Diego: Academic Press.

Sear DA (1994) River restoration and geomorphology. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 4: 169–177.

SER (Society for Ecological Restoration Science and Policy Working Group) (2002) The SER Primer on Ecological Restoration.

Smith SM and Prestegaard KL (2005) Hydraulic performance of a morphology‐based stream channel design. Water Resources Research 41: W11413.

Stanley EH and Doyle MW (2002) A geomorphic perspective on nutrient retention following dam removal. BioScience 52: 703–712.

Stone R (2008) Three Gorges dam: into the unknown. Science 321: 628–632.

Stromberg JC (2001) Restoration of riparian vegetation in the south‐western United States: importance of flow regimes and fluvial dynamics. Journal of Arid Environments 49: 17–34.

Tullos DD (2006) River restoration in China: a review of local efforts to improve the quality of lotic life. Ecological Restoration 243: 165–172.

Vorosmarty CJ (2002) Global change, the water cycle, and our search for Mauna Loa. Hydrological Processes 16: 135–139.

Walter RC and Merritts DJ (2008) Natural streams and the legacy of water‐powered mills. Science 319: 299–304.

Whalen PJ, Toth LA, Koebel JW and Strayer PK (2002) Kissimmee River Restoration: a case study. Water Science and Technology 45: 55–62.

Wohl E, Angermeier PL, Bledsoe E et al. (2005) River restoration. Water Resources Research 41: W10301.

Zedler JB (2000) Progress in wetland restoration ecology. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 15: 402–407.

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.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

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