Environmental Economics Riparian Restoration

Riparian restoration has been a major issue in the Western United States and in other places of the world where habitats of waterways, creeks, streams, marshes or rivers have been compromised as the result of natural or man made pollution and damage. The riparian zone does not just describe the actual aquatic zone, but includes the banks, higher ground and areas above the water table.

Riparian damage occurs, for example, when something disturbs the soil, causing sediment to wash down into the aquatic habitat. Logging roads and excessive timber harvesting, for example, damages the soil until it cannot sustain plant life. Rains wash the soil into rivers, streams and creeks, where it chokes off the light and introduces far too many solids, killing aquatic plants and living things. 

Runoff from farming and other operations can introduce fertilizer, chemicals and feces that contain oxygen hogs. The oxygen hogs get out of control when aquatic plant overgrowth or bacterial and chemical actions use up oxygen that is needed by invertebrates and other aquatic life forms, as another example.

As a result, there can be enormous conflict between social, business and political communities, especially during times of scarce economic resources. The controversy is immediate and loud when budgets and funding for restoring wetlands are added as riders to legislation. But the bottom line is that the complex of economic, social, ecological, and business repercussions of failing to maintain even smaller healthy riparian environments can have effects that are much larger or widespread than anticipated.

The costs of riparian restoration can be so enormous that they cannot be privately or commercially capitalized and the government must make the initial investments. In some cases, the government makes moves to purchase or trade riparian and waterfront land with landowners and those who have claims on bureau of management land in order to create continuous manageable and protected areas along rivers and other aquatic biomes.

In other ways, the government may establish codes, rules or laws that require farming, industrial, transportation and timber operations to manage the problematic runoff or bad crop management that introduces too much fertilizer, chemicals, petroleum, animal feces or silt to the water.

But careful consideration must be given to the costs versus the overall benefits of riparian restoration efforts as well as the sociopolitical attitude toward restoration in order to find those projects which achieve a balance. In other words, the goal is to focus on projects with a high likelihood of success in reaping ecological benefits and low social and economic resistance to taking land and spending money in restoration.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers may have changing missions in relation to political, economic, and social forces. During some eras, doing as little as possible may be the orders of the day, during other eras, there might be enough resources to make serious inroads in riparian restoration and protection.

The Army Corps of Engineers is given the administrative control of major waterways, originally as part of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, in order to control actions that block navigable waterways.  But when the clean water act was passed in 1972, the Corps role expanded to the issue of dredging or filling in “The Waters Of the United States”, including wetlands.

As a result, the preventive aspect of the Clean Water Act allowed preventive action and research that may have reduced the need for massive riparian restorations or permanent destruction of waterways by reducing or preventing major damage in the first place. If an activity is relatively low impact, or of minor impact, the Corps allows regional or District permissions that are administered by District commanders.

Whatever the economic conditions, the world is aware of the effects of riparian damage and is aware of the need for restoring or preventing such damage.

National Center For Environmental Research, “Ecological, Demographic, and Economic Evaluation of Opportunities and Constraints for Riparian Restoration.”, May 2001

US Army Corps Of Engineers, “Wetlands And Waterways Regulation and Permitting”