Stream Restoration

When surveying a ranch property, you may find streams that are in need of restoration. From poor water quality to excessive bank erosion to diminished fish populations, neglected streams may degrade to a level that affects the recreation and value of a property. Fortunately, there are a variety of techniques and resources that can aid in returning a stream to a healthy equilibrium.

Here’s what you need to know:

Potential Stream Issues

Problematic stream conditions can arise from both natural and human impacts, and can vary widely in scope and degree. Furthermore, many of the issues you may see are not entirely localized, with the origin of the problem being upstream or in some other stretch of the water basin.

Natural catalysts for shifts in stream health may involve events like wildfires and seasonal floods. Fires create massive amounts of burned vegetation and debris, with much of this making its way into local streams and rivers and directly affecting water quality. A wildfire can burn off vital bankside vegetation, whose roots provide stability to the banks and help to maintain populations of insect species that feed trout.  Continued degradation of bank stability can lead to erosion, which may widen streams, shift the water flow, and alter underwater habitats for fish. Floods may create similar issues, with huge volumes of water eroding land and bringing extra sediment into the stream.

Man-made catalysts may involve dams, mining operations, and unmonitored livestock grazing. Massive obstructions like dams can create drastic shifts in water flow, which affects everything from water temperature to bank erosion to streambed geography. Careful planning and scheduling of flow adjustments can help to mitigate this damage, but it requires expertise. Mining operations, both current and past, can impact water quality by leeching metals into streams. This can drastically impact fish and insect populations, as well as communities who utilize the stream’s water. Similarly, aggressive and unmonitored livestock grazing can degrade water quality by bringing huge amounts of organic material into the stream. If unchecked, livestock can quickly erode stream banks, further compounding the potential for imbalance.

A variety of other circumstances and issues exist, as every stream is unique to the characteristics of the wider water basin.

Restorative Practices

Whatever the issue affecting a stream, restorative practices may help ease the stream back toward balance. Seeking the aid of experts is important, as these ecosystems require educated care and foresight. The methodology used may vary from expert to expert, but a general approach involves gathering and analyzing data before determining whether a passive or active management plan should be implemented.

From sediment samples to vegetation assessment to fish surveys, data is gathered to qualify stream conditions. Data from both the past and present is important, as streams often do not show the impact of mining or agricultural operations until decades later.

This data is utilized to develop a plan of action.

Generally, a management-only approach will be considered first, with an aim of mitigating further damage and allowing the stream to reach a balance without major human input. Passive approaches may involve discouraging unnecessary removal of dead wood and other structures in the stream. Sometimes, these obstructions may actually help increase the diversity of the streambed’s geology by shifting the flow of water, thereby creating a more stable underwater ecosystem.

If a passive approach is not adequate to restore a stream, a more active approach may be utilized. This can involve implanting structures such as log vanes and root wads into key portions of the stream to direct water away from eroding banks and encourage underwater habitats for fish and aquatic insects. Active root systems are often the best defense against bank erosion, so a restoration plan may involve stabilizing bankside vegetation by way of aggressive replanting and maintenance. This vegetation maintenance may also help with dwindling trout populations, as foliage hanging over the stream helps create shadows in the margins, which in turn helps reduce overall water temperature. Constant livestock access may also harm fish populations. If livestock frequent the stream, fences with gates may be built to encourage periodic use of the water, instead of constant and unmonitored use.

Regardless of the approach, the end goal of restoration is often to mitigate bank degradation and facilitate improved water quality and underwater habitats for aquatic creatures. The goal is to return the stream to a natural, balanced state that does not require constant human intervention.

In the end, the causes for less-than-ideal stream conditions can vary greatly, with the resulting action required coming down to the particulars of the stream and the surrounding ecosystem. An expert perspective is vital, as the biological and bioengineering considerations may be complex. At Ranch Marketing Associates, we can provide this skilled insight. With decades of experience in ranch management, the restoration of streams and lakes is a practice we understand and prioritize. We have knowledgeable connections throughout the ranching industry, and are confident in our ability to help mitigate and manage any issue on your ranch property. Contact us today to learn how we can help.

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