Tag Archives: failures

“Fields and Streams” by Rebecca Lave – High Stakes in the Rosgen Wars

fields and streamsJust 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.

Order the Book > Fields and Streams: Stream Restoration, Neoliberalism and the Future of Environmental Science

A $1 Billion Question: Are Stream Restoration Projects Working?

Many expensive stream projects fail because they are not guided by science, experts say.  At Trout Headwaters, Inc. we have a long tradition of promoting the use of baseline assessments in stream, river and wetland restoration.  We even developed a patented system, RiverWorks Rapid Assessment System® (RRAS), to help standardize the assessment process. The first step to successful restoration is a full understanding of the current health and condition of the resource, and the factors influencing that condition.  When restoration treatments are complete, monitoring and maintenance ensure and confirm long-term success.

A recent news release by University at Buffalo announces a new book co-edited by a Buffalo geography professor analyzing the state of the nation’s $1 billion stream restoration industry. The new American Geophysical Union monograph, “Stream Restoration in Dynamic Fluvial Systems: Scientific Approaches, Analyses, and Tools,” provides detailed explanations of best practices grounded in science.

“There needs to be research behind solutions,” said University at Buffalo geography professor Sean J. Bennett, who edited the book with Andrew Simon of Cardno ENTRIX and Janine M. Castro of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Because practice has outpaced research, projects on real waterways often turn out to be experiments themselves, and many fail. People undertake a project without fully understanding which restoration techniques work, or how a river will respond to the techniques employed, the article says.

Read more: http://www.buffalo.edu/news/13446

Classified: Why the Overuse of Stream Classification Systems Have Failed River Restoration

At Trout Headwaters we put a lot of emphasis on stream and wetland assessment.  Our unwavering belief in scientifically-sound assessments of water resources led us to develop a patented system just for assessments called RiverWorks Rapid Assessment System®. Because of the number of stream restoration failures we’ve seen in the last 16 years, we have been vocal opponents of popular cookbook stream classification systems that shortcut the stream assessment and restoration design process.

In 2005 the American Society of Civil Engineers published an article by several prominent scientists which evaluated the Rosgen method of stream classification and natural channel design. The 2005 article opens with, “Over the past 10 years the Rosgen classification system and its associated methods of ‘natural channel design’ have become synonymous (to many without prior knowledge of the field) with the term ‘stream restoration’ and the science of fluvial geomorphology.”

The article concludes with, “Empirical approaches such as those inherent in “natural channel design” … do not provide cause and effect solutions or means of predicting stable channel dimensions and represent only one possible alternative to evaluating stream channels.” And, “Practitioners concerned with professional liability and with the future of their professions would do well to provide design services based on peer-reviewed professional standards.”

Classification systems and channel evolution models (CEM) are no substitute for proven, thorough assessment techniques, including the use of upstream and downstream reference reaches. Our freshwater resources are far too important to shortcut.  Rosgen_Classification_Problems

Restoring Faith in Stream, River and Wetland Restoration

Kudos are deserved for the North Carolina legislature for recently passing legislation (which Governor Perdue signed) addressing an issue that has plagued the stream and wetland restoration efforts for years: insufficient project assessment, design and monitoring.  Fifteen years ago, Trout Headwaters, Inc (THI) entered the stream restoration industry, and unfortunately, a significant amount of our work today is “re-restoring” streams and wetlands due to failed designs and approaches.

The April 17 Charlotte Observer article (North Carolina spends $140 million on faulty water projects by Dan Kane and David Raynor) aptly highlights many of the problems that plague the still-emerging aquatic restoration industry. When funding escalates for a particular restoration action, money or politics may seek to “replace” sound science.  In North Carolina, DOT mitigation became a very lucrative opportunity.  One clear problem with failed stream and river restoration projects has been the rampant use of a formulaic or “cookbook” approach currently being used across the United States, and certainly in North Carolina.  Unfortunately, this unreliable recipe has been responsible for many spectacular and expensive failures.

As one of the old guys in this relatively new industry of stream restoration we’ve been preaching for more than a decade against simplistic cookbook approaches to complex ecological problems, and have pleaded the case for better industry standards when it comes to assessment and monitoring.  We have watched the growing debate over the uncertainty associated with restoration (and especially with aggressive, formula-based approaches) now reaching a broader public consciousness.

We urge North Carolina and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take a closer look at what works, and what doesn’t in stream restoration methodologies and approaches.  Peter Raabe from American Rivers, an environmental watch group, summarized recently: “Giving more work to the people who are the absolute experts in the field is probably the direction we should be going.”

THI agrees and is supportive of this state’s efforts to steer the industry in a sustainable direction.

Stream Restoration Failures Beg for Holistic, Sustainable Solutions

According to a recent report by the Raleigh News & Observer, more than 30 stream restoration projects have failed during or after construction in the state of North Carolina, “a few of them multiple times, turning what was supposed to be a cleanup into an environmental hazard.” The state is reportedly spending millions repairing these sites.

Some projects have damaged water quality by dumping sediment into waterways.  According to the story, “errors in design or construction are partly to blame, but taxpayers absorb much of the cost.” 

Reported restoration failures in North Carolina total $140 million. Read the News & Observer Investigation or Learn More about Standards for Restoration Success

Read More: Expensive Stream Restoration Failures Will Diminish Our Nation’s Appetite for Restoration