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River resiliency: Restoring function and process following a natural disaster

June 27, 2018

In the face of adversity, it’s important to align stakeholders to foster recovery—and to prepare for the next disaster

Water is one of our most fundamental resources—it is as precious as it is critical. But it’s also significantly unbalanced across regions. Within the US, the western states can’t procure enough water to meet escalating demand out of scarcity, but the eastern states are often burdened with surplus water from weather events like frequent storms and flooding.

Regardless of the climate or the geography, communities all rely on water.

Consider California, a state that has long been experiencing a significant drought compounded by its large population and robust agriculture industry. Compare their situation to that of New Orleans in 2005, a city that was left in an underwater abyss for more than a month after Hurricane Katrina. Whether it’s severe drought or a 500-year flood, water-management issues can be perpetually problematic and have significant impacts on our communities.

So, what can we do to improve resiliency and reduce risk heading forward?

The Big Thompson River in Colorado after rehabilitation following devastating 2013 flooding.

When you are underwater, who can you call?

Planning and preparation are the most effective and proactive measures to take before any disaster strikes. But sometimes—even with a strategy—mother nature can provide unexpected surprises that can threaten lives, infrastructure, and landscapes while straining any available resources. Having a plan in place before these events is critical, but recovery after disturbance also requires high levels of collaboration, communication, and expertise.

That’s where our Environmental Services team comes in. We have experts who investigate situations and provide stakeholders with a foundation of knowledge that will help them prepare for—or recover from—disasters. We present technical information in an approachable way that facilitates conversations between stakeholders. Our goal? To get proponents and stakeholders on the same side and help instill resiliency into the communities we serve.

In 2013, severe flooding on the Big Thompson River washed out highways and bridges, altered miles of river corridor, and took several lives in Colorado. Rehabilitation work included bank stabilization and improving in-stream and terrestrial habitats.

Restoring the Big Thompson River

Consider our work on the Big Thompson River project in Larimer County, Colorado. The watershed was in desperate need of repair and rehabilitation after experiencing severe flooding in 2013. Just like the infamous Big Thompson flood of 1976, the 2013 flood saw the region desperately overcome with water. The event washed out highways and bridges, destroyed homes, took several lives, and severely altered miles of river corridor—both in the mountains and on the plains. For 60 hours, the Big Thompson River exceeded the previous record flood stage.

To help restore and rehabilitate the river, the Big Thompson Watershed Coalition brought on our team to design and implement projects capable of fostering resiliency and creating a trajectory for long-term recovery.

Our role? To create thoughtful, natural looking, science-based designs that protect life, property, and infrastructure; mitigate flood risk; engage the local community; and enhance ecosystem structure and function. To that end, we provided a multi-faceted design package to rehabilitate the Big Thompson River, its floodplain, and its riparian corridor.

The result? Our designs maintained the river’s pre-flood location while significantly enhancing its physical and biological functions. With a focus on resiliency, we provided:

  • Bank stabilization to maintain the river’s flow and minimize erosion.
  • Floodplain reconnection to reduce the risk of future flooding events.
  • In-stream and terrestrial habitats to increase biodiversity and wildlife.
  • Reestablishing native vegetation to create stability, function, and beauty.

These project components not only reversed many of the damages to the river corridor, but they better prepared the Big Thompson River, local residents, and the downstream communities for future flooding events.

One of the goals of the Big Thompson River restoration effort was reestablishing native vegetation to create stability, function, and beauty.

Collaboration is key

Often, we are surprised to see how much we can accomplish combining our technical skills and experience. We have great engineers, outstanding scientists, and a deep pool of knowledge and resources to draw from. As a global network of experts—and the largest restoration group within North America—we can provide a seamless team of professionals from coast to coast.

We have experts who investigate situations and provide stakeholders with a foundation of knowledge that will help them prepare for—or recover from—disasters.

A successful restoration project is born out of consistent, honest, collaborative communications with our clients and project stakeholders. So that’s what we set out to accomplish. We don’t just talk amongst ourselves, we facilitate conversations with all those who provide long-term stewardship to the landscapes we restore. This not only allows us to properly assess our projects, it also helps us to fully understand a wide range of perspectives and, ultimately, create and implement design solutions that are effective and long-lasting.

Heading forward, we’re looking to create long-term champions of this service. Natural disasters can be fierce, so we’re encouraging communities at risk to proactively reach out for consultation. And, if you’ve been through a disaster and need assistance in recovering your rivers and streams, our ecosystem restoration team is here to help.

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