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Science Wednesday: Going with the Flow – Does Stream Restoration Work?

2008 November 5

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

About the Author: Erich Hester recently finished his Ph.D. in the Ecology Curriculum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research was funded in part by an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Fellowship.

Most Americans live in urban areas or their suburban fringes, and many more live near forests or agricultural lands. As kids, many of us enjoyed splashing in streams in our backyards or in the park down the street. Although we probably did not know it, major changes were occurring in those streams during our lifetimes because of human activities such as urbanization, agriculture, and even climate change.

Streams and rivers are important for humans, and not just for kids. They provide what are known as “ecosystem services,” such as supplying drinking water and rendering nutrients and toxins less harmful. But the capacity of aquatic resources to provide these services is being overwhelmed in many places.

To address these issues, billions of dollars are currently being spent on “stream restoration.” Nevertheless, the science connecting restoration practice to ecological recovery and ecosystem services is often weak, and many restoration projects fail to achieve their stated goals. I’m trying to fill scientific gaps between restoration design and ecological response so restoration projects can have a more positive impact on stream ecosystems, a goal shared by EPA scientists.

Through modeling and field studies, I evaluated how humans impact the exchange of water between streams and groundwater, which is critical to many stream ecosystems. I focused on how certain natural stream features, often used in stream restoration, can help restore surface to groundwater exchange. One key component of this exchange is heat, as temperature is the single most important condition affecting the lives of organisms, and humans can induce heat stress in aquatic organisms by warming the water. I determined how these features can help moderate peak temperatures in streams that are overheating due to deforestation or climate change.

This information will help improve design guidance for stream restoration currently being developed. I’m also participating in the Virginia Stream Alliance, a working group created by the Virginia legislature to foster knowledge transfer among academics, consultants, and government about the fast changing field of stream restoration.

I plan to continue research on this and related themes when I become an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech in January 2009.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Austin Hicks permalink
    November 17, 2008

    I think what you guys are doing about Green Chemesrty is really important.I am doing a school report about you guys and i hope for your reply back to me for more info!

  2. Kay permalink*
    November 17, 2008

    Hi Austin. Thanks for your kind words. You can find information for your report at the EPA website: You can also check the A-Z list of topics:

    Also you can look at what questions other people are asking us:

    Good luck!

  3. Catherine Rooney permalink
    November 26, 2008

    Hi Erich – I am searching for a diagram that showed the differing vegatative landscape cover types and the amount of groundwater infiltration they encouraged or discouraged. I believe that it was complete with forests, scrub and then included lawns and hardscaping. I am trying to educate the public and various citizen zoning and planning boards here. thanks for any help you can lend!

  4. Julie Meyer permalink
    March 30, 2009

    Hi Eric,

    Sounds like you’re doing great work. I’m working on developing a proposal for a masters thesis on stream restoration. I’m in the process of collecting good research questions related to the stream restoration field. Where would you go to see the most intriguing problems facing stream restorationists (urban or otherwise) today?

    Thank you for your consideration. You may respond to my email at; just put jp and then my last name in front of the @.


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