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Biomic River Restoration: partnering with nature’s river restorers

Colin Thorne, PhD
School of Geography
Nottingham University
Nottingham, United Kingdon

Authors: Colin R. Thorne1, Matthew F. Johnson1, Janine M. Castro2, G. Mathias Kondolf3, Celeste Searles Mazzacano4, Stewart B. Rood5, Cherie Westbrook6

1 School of Geography, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
2 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Vancouver, Washington
3 Department Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, University of California, Berkeley,
4 CASM Environmental, LLC, Portland, Oregon
5 Biological Sciences Department, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada
6 Geography and Planning Department, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Historical river management that is solely based on physics-led science has proved unsustainable and unsuccessful as evidenced by the current abundance of problems (e.g. flooding, water scarcity, channel instability) that river engineering was intended to address. In the late-20th century, disillusionment with past approaches fuelled the growth of river restoration, but the outcomes of restoration have also been disappointing. This likely stems from the fact that restoration design remains overly-reliant on the same physics-led science as past management, with the power of flowing water unquestioned as the predominant driver of channel-forming processes. This ignores the influences of biological players and processes in shaping and reshaping rivers and their channels. For river restoration and management to reverse on-going decline in river functions, we must re-envisage what it means to restore a river – moving away from channel-centered, physics-based approaches to design fully connected, stream-wetland-floodplain systems, and partnering with nature’s river restorers to recover healthy and supportive ecosystems. This “biomic” approach recognises that riverine plants and animals work tirelessly to improve their own life chances and those of their species. In so doing, a healthy ecosystem not only aids restoration and makes the resulting biomic river resilient to disturbance; it also gives it a self-healing capacity. Biological processes of recolonisation and succession that follow disturbance facilitate recovery of damaged ecological systems, which in turn, promote recovery of the physical system to a new, dynamically-stable condition. This is vital because today’s restored rivers must have the capacity to adapt not only to changes in local, catchment, and regional land-uses, but also to climate change driven changes to the flow and sediment regimes. Adaptive capacity is maximised when restoration creates fluvial and ecological systems that co-respond in recovering from disturbance, absorbing perturbations and continuing to co-evolve, however the future unfolds. Recent restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest that integrate fluvial and ecological river-floodplain systems are used to demonstrate the outcomes and benefits to be gained by partnering with nature’s river restorers.