America's unheralded water cleanup
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On the other hand, the threat of costly and onerous environmental penalties has driven the increase in river and stream restoration, Fahlund says. Federal and state funds have been ladled out for larger projects. Smaller, private "mitigation funds" - compensation paid by developers in exchange for environmental degradation from their projects - have financed the huge growth in river restoration.Skip to next paragraph
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In the Southwest, much of the focus is on saving endangered species like the humpback chub, while in Chesapeake Bay the focus is on cleaning up excess sediment and nutrient pollution. In the Southeast, meanwhile, developer "mitigation credits" are the major propellant. Slightly more than half of the projects - about 20,000 - are in the Pacific Northwest.
One of those projects can be found in an isolated region of Idaho. For millenniums, spawning chinook salmon found their way up the Columbia and its tributary, the Red River, a modest 50-foot-wide tributary that once wound its way in serpentine coils across mountain meadows of north central Idaho.
But gold miners dredging the gravel of the Red River inadvertently straightened the river. Without its winding, looping curves, the river water washed through faster, cutting deeper into the sediment. Groundwater in the area dropped. So the river level dropped, too, in summer, and the water temperature became too hot for salmon. Shallow gravel-filled waters - ideal for salmon spawning - virtually disappeared.
Today, however, those shallow gravel bars are on their way back. Using bulldozers to sculpt new river twists and turns into the mountain meadow, biologists and engineers from the University of Idaho at Boise have restored the river, turning one straightened 1.5-mile section of the river into a winding 2.5-mile section.
Result: Groundwater is rising, summer water temperatures are down, and the ecosystem is recovering, the researchers say. Salmon are on their way back, too.
The success of this project is known because University of Idaho researchers Steve Clayton and Peter Goodwin have continued to monitor the river since its completion in 2000. Only about 10 percent of the projects were monitored, the NRRSS study found, so it's hard to know if the dollars spent on restoration were a success.
"Our goal is to show how important this follow-up monitoring is for the success of river restoration," says Dr. Clayton. "Without it, we can't develop a system of best practices."
Not long ago, the Upper Paint Branch Watershed just north of Washington, D.C., was biologically moribund. In 1995, a Maryland county council designated it a special protected area. The state parks commission and university researchers developed a restoration plan, including a key underground bypass pipe to shunt storm water from a nearby subdivision. That move cooled the water to a level trout could handle. Today, wild trout spawn in one of the nation's most densely packed urban areas.
"What this tells us is that you should never give up on an urban stream," says Margaret Palmer, codirector of the NRRSS project. "There's still hope for restoring them."