Bay Journal Opinion Piece: Prioritize Stream Restoration Funding Using Triage System

A November 9, 2015 Bay Journal opinion piece by recently retired Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) employee Ron Klauda advocated that funding for stream restoration should be prioritized in a manner similar to the medical “triage” system, with slight to moderately damaged streams being given preference over more severely damaged streams that have a lower chance of recovery. In laying the foundation for his proposal, Klauda calculated that 7,700 out of Maryland’s 12,000 stream miles are moderately to critically damaged and that the total costs to restore all damaged streams is in the “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

What’s needed, in my opinion, is a more objective, empirically based prioritization strategy to help decide when, where and how to allocate limited restoration funds to maximize benefits for the ecosystem.

An effective prioritization strategy should embrace the notion that the benefits obtained per restoration dollar spent will be greatest for slightly and moderately damaged streams, but lowest for severely and critically damaged streams — those that are impacted by many stressors and likely have very low probabilities of recovery. …

I suggest we borrow a prioritization strategy for planning and implementing stream restoration actions from the medical world, an approach that has stood the test of time, is still used by doctors and nurses, and is also being used to protect rare species and conserve biodiversity: triage.

Klauda described how a triage system would work and then illustrated the potential benefits of applying such a system to Maryland’s streams:

Triage can sort out those streams with still intact ecological integrity (i.e., mostly healthy or only slightly degraded) that do not need costly restoration actions, but deserve to be protected, and soon, lest they become further damaged.

Triage can also sort out those streams that are moderately damaged and whose ecological structure/functions can likely be recovered with reasonable costs, if the key stressors are removed and appropriate restoration actions taken fairly soon.

And perhaps most importantly, triage can sort out those streams whose ecological integrity is so severely compromised or irretrievably lost such that restoration is almost certainly not possible, even if much money is spent in the attempt.

The most defensible strategy for dealing with these badly damaged streams is to implement minimal management actions to improve their appearance and ensure they do not endanger human health and safety.

The allocation of public resources to stream restoration actions should not be taken lightly. The science and the technology of stream restoration are slowly developing and there is much we don’t know about if and how a stream can be restored. Deciding where restoration is to take place should consider the ecological value of the degraded stream, its location in the watershed, the probability of restoration success, the benefits if restoration is successful and total required costs.