Project shows need for better monitoring of river restoration

April 28, 2005

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---A recent study of river restoration efforts nationwide found that pre- and post-project monitoring of regional projects is largely inadequate to determine their ecological success. But the good news is that a variety of solutions exist to vastly increase the success rate for restoration projects.

The study, conducted by seven university teams, included 37,099 river restoration projects across the country, said David Allan, professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, who was a co-author of the study. Of those projects, more than 700 were in Michigan, Allan said. The results will be published in the April 29 journal Science, "Restoration of U.S. Rivers---a National Synthesis."

The teams found many projects with individual successes, but there was no consistent way to apply those best practices to other projects. The ultimate goal of the study is to compile a database to rate the ecological success of river restoration projects and to share best practices across the country.

The Michigan team looked at river projects in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, where in 2002 an estimated $36.9 to $52.7 million was spent on river restoration projects.

The Michigan team went one step further by attempting to analyze the ecological success of the restoration projects, said Gretchen Alexander, an SNRE graduate student. While thus far it's tough to rate the ecological success, the good news is that there are many ways to improve the way project managers carry out and evaluate ecological restoration.

First, Alexander interviewed 39 project managers in the three states about whether they viewed their projects as successful. During questioning, 88 percent of project managers subjectively rated their projects as successful, Alexander said. However, when she applied five stringent ecological criteria to measure success, the results were "about a C+," she said.

The success criteria include: whether a guiding image exists of what an ecologically healthy river would look like at the particular site; whether the ecosystem improved; whether the ecosystem is self maintaining after restoration; whether the project inflicted no lasting harm; and whether an ecological assessment was completed and findings disseminated.

"There is a disconnect between the perception of project success and the achievement of ecological success," Alexander said.

The main reason for that disconnect is that river restoration projects don't allocate adequate funding to pay for monitoring and evaluation of ecological impacts before and after the projects begin, Allan said. This was found locally, by the Michigan team, and nationally.

"Without pre- and post-project monitoring and dissemination of information you might have individual successes but no real consistency," said Allan. Suggestions to fix the problem include: framing grant proposals so they allow for long term monitoring funds; moving from a locally focused restoration approach to a more integrated vision to include more areas; and implementing some sort of systematic data collection.

Another parallel between the national and local results is that the number of river restoration projects and the money spent on such projects has increased steadily over the last decade. Allan said the number of projects implemented each year in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio was approx 25 in the 1985-1990 period, and increased to around 50 per year in the late 1990s. River restorations exceeded 100 projects annually after the year 2000.
The database project is sponsored by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and several foundations, in partnership with American Rivers, a Wash. D.C.-based environmental group. The restoration survey team undertook the mammoth task to better understand the common elements of successful river restoration project.

Restoration success stories:
U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment:
David Allan:

University of Michigan

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