Is Watershed Restoration Working? | Fluence

Researchers drew from their experience with the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, a large-scale project to protect and restore water quality in the river’s basin.

Researchers call for standardizing methodology among smaller projects

It’s well understood that damage to watersheds leads to freshwater access problems for the populations that depend upon them. That’s why we now spend much more money on watershed upgrades and mitigation of damage done to soil, water, and rivers than we did a decade or two ago. But after years of large-scale watershed restoration, nobody seems to have any proof that it’s working.

A team of Pennsylvania researchers from Drexel University and Stroud Water Research Center has published an explanation of why success is hard to determine. They believe verification is difficult because of:

  • Little holistic planning for execution and monitoring
  • Planning without considering geographic context and scale
  • Failure to link monitoring to defined goals and projected outcomes
  • Funding agencies’ limited approach to monitoring

The study goes on to make recommendations to meet the four challenges based on experience gleaned from the large-scale Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DWRI). Dr. Stefanie A. Kroll, the study’s lead author, explained, “You don’t have to re-build the wheel to solve this challenge.” Kroll recommends using funding to take advantage of the local expertise of scientific and conservation organizations already in place in regions where watershed restoration is undertaken.

Moreover, in watershed restoration, Kroll explains that often, “less is more.” Concentrating mitigation on smaller, well-chosen watershed areas can often do more good than spending time and money on a much larger and more challenging project.

Funding Falling Short

The study found one problem that all watershed restoration projects seemed to share: Their funding rarely matches their scope, so the projects often end up cut short or not delivering desired outcomes within the timeframe established by the funders.

Funding organizations also usually fund small projects or groups of them that are not linked to any large-scale, comprehensive restoration plans on longer timelines, which would be more effective. Kroll explained:

We need data to set realistic goals based on […] nearby restoration successes and potential factors that interfere with signals of recovery, like past land use, changes in farming/water practices and climate change.

Kroll and her team identify an information gap between scientists and funders, suggesting partnerships and regular interfaces between scientists and conservations groups with local expertise in the region where the project will be executed.

Also important is a flow of data and discussion of best practices between these local groups and funding organizations. Kroll’s team collects data from agencies that verify that streams are meeting their targets, but they meet regularly with the agencies involved in restoration to find ways to make the data useful to them and work together. Kroll explained:

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach […] but a framework that enables better planning, monitoring and management will help us better inform restoration practices to make limited funding more targeted and effective.

Cooperation Between Restoration Projects

Moving forward, the team hopes its DWRI work will be used as a model for other projects. Although the Delaware River project was large-scale, smaller projects are encouraged to network with other projects to share plans and goals, and standardize their monitoring methods. In this way, large data sets can be created even by a patchwork of smaller restoration efforts linked by common monitoring methodology.

So far, successes in watershed restoration are mostly perceived, but when success can be accurately quantified with data, it should be that much easier to justify expenditure of scarce funding.

Contact Fluence for information on what’s new in denitrifying technology to augment watershed restoration.