Unlocking the secrets of the watershed through science

Unlocking the secrets of the watershed through science

(Fifth in an eight-part series on the history and successes of Pacific Rivers)

— by Charley Dewberry —

When I joined Pacific Rivers in 1991, it had already become one of the most influential river conservation groups in the country, having recently passed the largest Wild and Scenic rivers law ever in the Lower 48 states.

Unfortunately, the new law didn’t actually protect the entire river. It prevented dam construction. It maintained reasonable water flows. And it prevented mining, and oil and gas exploration. But the Wild and Scenic law did not actually protect the river because it did not protect the tributaries or headwaters. It also did not change anything happening on the land around the river, in the watershed.

Pacific Rivers was not sure at the time what it would take to actually protect an entire river system. They hired me to figure it out.

I am a stream ecologist. I am a scientist who studies the relationships between living things and streams or rivers. For several decades, stream ecologists like me had been doing research and publishing papers about how to restore rivers. But they had not pulled the research together in a clear and simple way. And they had only told other scientists, not policy makers.

That was my first goal at Pacific Rivers — to get together the leading stream ecologists around the country to agree upon and write down how to restore a river, then deliver the information to policy makers. In 30 years, no one had ever invited a stream ecologist to a policy meeting. Stream ecology was not considered when setting priorities or restoration strategies for river systems.

The National Science Foundation gave us funding to convene a group of scientists and have them discuss, agree upon and write down the essential elements of how to restore a river. I sent out invitations to the 15 leading stream ecologists in North America and, to my great surprise, they all said yes. Then I got calls from other ecologists who had not been invited, asking to come, but I didn’t have funding for any more than 15.

Everyone knew this was sorely needed and was going to make a big impact.

And so it turned out that the one place every stream ecologist in North America wanted to be in April 1992 was in a stuffy, windowless conference room in the Forest Service’s H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest outside of Eugene, Oregon. They came, they talked, and they agreed on two main ideas:

Healthy North American rivers, especially large ones, are connected to their floodplains. Whether they flow through wetlands, deserts, prairies, mountains or forests, the stream is braided, there are multiple channels all the way across the valley floor, and the stream is not deeply incised, so it doesn’t have really high, deep banks.

This was not groundbreaking. As stream ecologists, we had known this stuff for 30 years. But it had never made it into policy or regulatory discussions.

What happens on the land will show up in the river. Rivers operate as a system, from headwaters to sea. And everything that happens on the land around the river and its tributaries will affect the health of the river. In a nutshell, we have to manage the whole watershed to truly protect a river and the fish, animals and people that depend on the river. This is called the Stream Continuum Theory — i.e., the stream is continuous from headwater to sea, and throughout the watershed.

These two ideas were groundbreaking in their clarity and consensus. They told a story that was true for every river and stream in North America and perhaps even the world, and until now had been a bit of a secret known only to scientists.

Pacific Rivers wrote a 20-page white paper explaining these ideas for members of Congress, congressional staff, and federal agency staff. The paper later turned into a book called Entering the Watershed. And the ideas therein dramatically changed the debate about how to restore a river.Pacific Rivers brought science to the table.

It was the first example of many where Pacific Rivers’ emphasis on science would bring real and lasting benefits to the people, animals and fish that depend on rivers.

Charley Dewberry is an internationally recognized stream ecologist.

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