Weirdly, one of the elements we found appealing about our property was the erosion. In a fit of masochistic optimism, we were excited by the prospect of working to restore a degraded landscape to a level of ecological function, of seeing gully walls stabilised with plants and creeklines resounding with a froggy chorus. As we’ve explored the best strategies for managing and restoring these sections of the property, the advice we’ve received has often tended towards paying someone to think about it and do the work for us, purchasing expensive, industrially produced tools and materials, and utilising heavy machinery, all of which bring with them a substantial price tag. This disturbed us, because it seems to suggest that land restoration is the domain of those with cash to splash, and that those people or places without the necessary resources may just have to resign themselves to the continued collapse of their landscapes.
Thankfully, we came across the work of the likes of Craig Sponholtz, Brad Lancaster, Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier, and in Australia, Cam Wilson and Peter Bennett. In their work, these thinkers and practitioners of water management and restoration, offer a radically different approach to watershed restoration. While they don’t flinch from the importance of technical understanding, they cultivate strategies that are based in the thoughful observation of those who are connected to a landscape, that utilise locally available materials, and that draw on community power to create modest interventions that can be tweaked over time. Rather than advising that landowners simply save up and pay an expert, their work seeks to empower communities to manage, monitor and maintain water in their landscapes through accessible, practical and locally-adaptable erosion control and water harvesting responses. In his foreword to Zeedyk and Clothier’s book Let the Water Do the Work, Courtney White articulates the characteristics of this approach: it is evidence-based, its affordability and relative simplicity make it accessible, it is based in ‘soft engineering’, challenging “the dominant paradigms of river and creek restoration”, it requires “humility, attentiveness and patience”, operating at the pace of the ecosystem, and finally, it’s at a human scale, flourishing with the participation of community, that offers “joy in companionship, in learning together, and sharing knowledge.”
We’ve expressed our admiration for Craig Sponholtz and Brad Lancaster at every opportunity (check out our resources page for links to their work), and we’ve referred to Bill Zeedyk’s practical introductions to erosion control and induced meandering in planning strategies for our property. We were excited then to come across Let the Water Do the Work (Chelsea Green, 2009), Zeedyk and Clothier’s comprehensive manual on the Induced Meandering approach to river restoration. While erosion or human intervention typically shifts rivers towards straight, incised channels that briskly transport water and accompanying sediment out of a landscape, ‘Induced Meandering’ refers to restoration of river function by re-establishing the twisting form of natural waterways. Through making relatively modest, strategic interventions, observant land managers can ‘let the water do the work’, in reshaping a river towards a state of ‘dynamic equilibrium’.
It’s part of the strength of their work that Zeedyk and Clothier are careful to provide expansive context on the appropriate situations and applications for Induced Meandering. Let the Water Do the Work contains detailed descriptions and diagrams for structures, and while practical folk may be tempted to hasten straight to that chapter, the real strength of this book is its emphasis on reading and classifying the health of a landscape in order to plan and implement appropriate structures. The first couple of chapters look at the dynamics of healthy rivers and their relationship with floodplains, with a chapter dedicated to classifying streams, based on the Rosgen Stream Classification System. This is supported by detailed process descriptions for conducting field surveys, including a number of site worksheets provided as appendices. In addition to the chapter on structure construction, there are also dedicated chapters on reading the landscape, project design and documentation, and follow-up monitoring and maintenance. Clearly, this is no generic solution, but rather an approach based on detailed local knowledge, and encouraging continued monitoring, modification and documentation to ensure robust ecological results.
While Induced Meandering may not be quite right for our site due to the small scale of our catchment, Let the Water Do the Work is tremendously inspiring for us in developing a more detailed understanding of the dynamics of our property. Based in their experiences in the dry southwestern United States, there are some sections that are North America specific. However, there are also enough insights into waterway behaviours that have resonance for the drylands of South Australia. One aspect emphasised by Zeedyk and Clothier is the importance of understanding historical landscape change in order to ensure targeted and effective interventions, something we’ve been banging on about recently. Let the Water Do the Work provides guidance to deepen our understanding, to refine some of our early experiments and, with our community, continue to plan, construct and document interventions that enhance our landscape.