Water is at the center of life on the land. From agriculture to aquifers, we rely on this precious resource for future generations. As the impacts of climate change become more apparent, water will be the new gold of the West. In 2018, the National Wildlife Federation along with 51 state and territory affiliates unanimously adopted a strategic priority under our Water for Wildlife goal to protect and restore the natural function and quality of the nation’s waters, wetlands, floodplains, and riparian areas to sustain healthy fish and wildlife populations.
It is estimated that 79% of the 3.3 million miles of riverscapes in the contiguous United States have been altered by human activity.
Western settlement dramatically altered riverscapes as beaver were trapped and wetlands were drained for urban and rural settlement. As a result, water itself became more scarce, impairing the health and sustainability of our water resources essential to survival in the American West. It is estimated that 79% of the 3.3 million miles of riverscapes in the contiguous United States have been altered by human activity with 19% flooded in reservoirs, leaving only 2% in a relatively pristine condition. Additionally, over one-third of rivers are officially listed as impaired or polluted and more than 70% of riparian forests have been removed or degraded.
The National Wildlife Federation is working to restore riverscapes across the West through partnership and collaboration using low-tech process based restoration (LTPBR). This restoration technique is defined as a simple, cost-effective, hand-built solution that helps repair degraded streams. This approach is designed to let the water do the work. By building structures that mimic beaver dams, we hold back water on the landscape later in the season, which disperses flows onto the floodplain, and recharges groundwater supply. LTPBR regulates water temperature in deep pools for aquatic organism habitat, promotes healthy riparian vegetation which in turn stabilizes bank erosion, sustains habitat for wildlife species dependent on the ecosystem services water provides and so much more.
The goal of these structures is to create a more drought-resilient ecosystem supporting a diversity of species. Beaver connected floodplains repeatedly create safe havens during fire in the face of climate change. Though we are a long way from beaver being restored to their historic range, LTPBR techniques can provide similar ecosystem benefits.
When water reaches LTPBR structures during runoff, they slow the velocity at which water moves through the system. The benefits are multifold: pooling in some areas, increasing the distribution of soil moisture, recharging ground-water reserves, and reconnecting the channel with its historic floodplain where water-adapted riparian-wetland plant communities may recover. Agricultural valley bottoms riparian and riverine systems provide significant and diverse habitat for wildlife as well as water resources to agricultural producers and water users. Though the process of fully restoring riparian ecosystems like these can be slow in terms of geologic and hydrologic time, we can see impactful shifts in just a few years. And this is a welcome development for people and wildlife alike!
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More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. The National Wildlife Federation is on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 53 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.