Part five of our 10-part Stantec R&D Fund 10th Anniversary Series takes us high into the Rocky Mountains.
In decades past, and even in recent memory, stream management in parts of the American Rocky Mountains happened like this: drive a bulldozer into a stream, create a diversion dam, and take the water you need. Efficient for industry, hard on the environment.
Other abuses from logging and mining also took their toll, damaging riverbanks and plant and animal habitat.
Thankfully, times are changing.
Those bulldozers have been replaced by 3D laser scanners and other harmless technologies that make stream management more sustainable. Nonetheless, recovering from decades-old damage is a slow process. The Encampment River in southern Wyoming is classic example of the challenges of streambank restoration.
Bringing plants back
The Encampment River is a 45-mile-long (72 kilometre) tributary of the North Platte River and runs through the town of Encampment, Wyoming. The region’s history includes logging, mining and farming, all of which had a negative effect on the river.
About four years ago, Stantec engineers began helping return the Encampment River to its natural flow. But changing the river’s channel and floodplain is only part of the story when it comes to restoration. “Vegetation is really the stuff that holds the stream restoration project together,” says senior ecologist Randy Walsh (Fort Collins, Colorado).
This coyote willow is part of the Encampment River restoration project. Although it seems small, the survival of this plant can have a big effect on the river system’s health.
The problem: plants simply weren’t returning to the riverbank because of the Encampment River’s unique set of challenges, including a(n):
- Flow that varies widely over the course of the year, from 3,500 cubic feet (99 cubic metres) per second (cfs) during spring runoff to less than 20 cfs (60 cubic centimetres) in the height of summer
- Location in a semi-arid climate
- Elevation of approximately 7,000 feet (2,134 metres), resulting in a short growing season
- River channel dominated by large cobblestones, with little soil for “riparian” plants (i.e., plants situated on riverbanks)
After walking project sites along the Encampment River with partners from Trout Unlimited and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and seeing the challenges firsthand, Randy applied for and received support from Stantec’s Research and Development (R&D) Fund (now Greenlight) for two phases of research on the Encampment River.
In Phase 1, Randy sought to answer three basic research questions related to the reestablishment of riparian vegetation:
- Which native riparian woody plant species are most appropriate for revegetating projects on the Encampment River and similar cobble-bed river systems in this part of the Rocky Mountains?
- Does planting location relative to the ordinary high water level influence revegetation success?
- Do soil amendments (i.e., material added to soil to improve its physical properties, such as water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration, etc.) help plants survive?
Phase 2 has focused on plant density and geomorphology. The goal is to use the newly planted vegetation to cause the river to deposit sediment, helping build the soil in the most beneficial areas of the river system.
Randy planted several diamond-shaped, 13-by-13 foot (4-by-4 metre) plots with 16 plants each on either side of the river. He chose 10 plants common to the region for the test plots. In some cases, the soil was amended to see the effect on plant growth and survival.
Paul Dey of the Wyoming Game & Fish Department says developing functioning riparian vegetation is one of the biggest challenges in stream restoration, but it’s also of vital importance to stream stability and habitat development.
“The mark of a successful stream restoration is vibrant riparian vegetation post-project. Randy's innovative and systematic approach with the R&D project will pay dividends as we continue to apply lessons learned to rocky, willow-lined channels across Wyoming,” Paul explained.
The project team travels by raft to survey the channel downstream of revegetation plots prior to the growing season. The green and blue tubes around the plants help protect them from local deer, who find Randy’s project particularly delicious.
Pioneering a new technology
So how can Randy be sure the geometric plantings will help repair old damage to the river? By using new technology. Randy and his team have pioneered the use of 3D laser scanners to map planting plots on the river. The scanners will provide detailed data collection on the result of the plantings.
“The scanners allow us to re-create the surface of the riverbanks and then compare that surface with very high resolution data year to year,” Randy says. “We took measurements before and after runoff this year. Each successive year we will go out there after runoff to see how the flow may have changed the banks themselves.
“The scanners are precision instruments, so we get tremendous data. As a result of the R&D research, we found them to be enormously powerful and a great complement to our traditional data-collection methods.”
Randy’s partners are learning too. Jeff Streeter of Trout Unlimited says working on this project with Randy is an education in healthy riparian areas and stable river channels.
“Randy is obsessed with plants,” Jeff says. “Walking a riparian area with Randy is to glimpse the small green wondrous world around us. He asks ‘why?’ at every new discovery; you can almost hear him thinking. With Randy’s coaching, I am aware of the subtleties that let plants grow.”
Randy plants a shrub along the Encampment River, there’s nothing like conducting scientific research in the field
A work-science balance
For Randy, Stantec’s R&D Fund is a perfect way to keep his scientific mind engaged. “Greenlight and R&D keeps folks like me happy,” he says. “That I can keep a small portion of my life in the research world and try to forge new knowledge is extremely satisfying.”
It’s not just Randy and the Encampment River that benefit from this research. Already, he’s applying his newfound knowledge to other projects. “I think it’s directly applicable to our clients,” he says. “I use this Encampment River project on a weekly basis to show clients how we are vested in this business and in the stream restoration practice.”
Randy Walsh is a restoration ecologist and project manager with nearly 15 years of experience implementing projects in the western and central United States.
About this article
Stantec is celebrating the 10th anniversary of our Research and Development (R&D) Fund—now called Greenlight. Through Greenlight, Stantec invests $2 million annually into our employees’ big ideas, with half the funds earmarked for scientific R&D initiatives. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which nurtures the efforts of our people to apply any idea that benefits us, our clients, or our communities, and enhances our reputation, competitive position, and ultimately our financial performance. In the coming months, we’ll be profiling 10 of our R&D grant recipients and their work, so check back often for more stories.