Just beneath the surface of the river restoration industry is an undercurrent of controversy strong enough to create two distinctly-opposed camps. Dubbed the “Rosgen Wars ” during the mid-1990s, this 20-year battle of ideas was named for its protagonist, Colorado hydrologist Dave Rosgen, and pits Rosgen and his legion of followers against some of the most highly-respected scientific minds in the field.
A new book by Indiana University geologist and author Rebecca Lave dissects the controversy and what it means for the political economy of scientific fields. In “Fields and Streams: Stream Restoration, Neoliberalism and the Future of Environmental Science,” Lave asks several key questions that apply to the privatization and commercialization of knowledge, most importantly, “What (and who) confers authority within scientific fields?”
In the mid-1990’s Rosgen developed his formula-based Natural Channel Design (NCD) for stream and river restoration, and created a series of short-courses to teach the method to mostly young and mid-level stream restoration practitioners. Ranged against Rosgen and NCD are what Lave calls “the guardians of scientific legitimacy:” top level academic and agency scientists who denounce Rosgen.
Lave describes a 2003 meeting of 35 of “the most respected academics, agency staff, and consultants in stream restoration in the U.S.” Rosgen was included in the meeting. “Despite the fact that he has little formal training in restoration science, Rosgen is the primary educator of restoration practitioners in the U.S. and training in his approach is [often] considered preferable to a PhD,” writes Lave.
In fact, Rosgen’s NCD approach has been adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as dozens of state resource agencies, and it is NCD, not a university-produced, approved scientific approach, that is often required by regulatory agencies issuing stream permits. The main criticisms of NCD short-course training are that the courses and method are inadequate preparation for anyone to practice the complex science of stream restoration. In addition, when applied by inexperienced practitioners, the method may be applied inappropriately when a stream doesn’t “fit” into the NCD formula.
Matt Kondolf, a professor of geomorphology at University of California – Berkeley, one of the critics, arrived late to that 2003 meeting, and “proceeded to let loose a shotgun blast of critique that sounded very loud in such a small room,” writes Lave. “It was, to put it mildly, uncomfortable.” In the decade since the meeting, despite criticism from top researchers, Rosgen hasn’t lost his swagger.
How is it that, despite the vocal opposition of experts “bearing academic sanctification in the form of prestigious degrees, job and publications,” arguing against the NCD approach in print, at conferences, and in short courses, NCD’s popularity has remained virtually unaffected? Lave quoted one federal agency scientist as saying, “What I don’t understand is without any…real training or background or anything else, how does he get written into the regulations?”
In “Fields and Streams” Lave reveals that Rosgen’s NCD approach filled a niche at a time when there was rising interest in river restoration due to push-back against a utilitarian focus on waterways. In the absence of a comprehensive design manual, certification program, or university course of study, Rosgen stepped in with NCD short courses that provided a unified, subjective structure for the stream restoration field, a common language with which to simplify and communicate complex ideas, and provided apparently credible educational credentials to create the perception of competence.
With a high demand for stream restoration professionals, agencies and others soon looked to Rosgen trainees as the standard. Then agencies and consulting firms began to require Rosgen training. Effective opposition proved too difficult for a disjointed, geographically scattered scientific community to make a cohesive argument against Rosgen with only the occasional paper or commentary here or there. But as failed projects begin to emerge, the opposition is beginning to gel. Another of the guardians, Martin Doyle, a professor of River Science and Policy at Duke University, was quoted in Fields and Streams as saying, “It seems like there’s a life cycle: love Rosgen, get over-enamored with him, start to see some failures and shortcomings of the approach, and then start to do other things.”
Although stream restoration in the U.S. costs more than $1 billion annually, stream and river restoration and ecosystem services have traditionally been undervalued because most people in the U.S. are still able to open a tap and have all the clean water they want. However, the stakes are high enough to make sure money allocated to stream restoration is well-spent, as expensive project failures tend to dampen enthusiasm for future projects.
While Lave’s interest lies in the broader questions of how scientific knowledge is derived, disseminated, and accepted, at risk in the Rosgen Wars may be the legitimacy of an entire field of practice, and continued enthusiasm for restoring the freshwater resources we all share.