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Restoring the River Continuum Community

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The River Continuum Concept was the first unified hypothesis about how streams and their watersheds work. It changed forever the world’s understanding of freshwater ecosystems. Source: Stream Corridor Restoration: Principles, Processes, and Practices, 10/98, by the Federal Interagency Stream Restoration Working Group (FISRWG).

By James G. Blaine, Ph.D., and Lamonte Garber

“FROM HEADWATERS TO MOUTH, THE PHYSICAL VARIABLES WITHIN A RIVER SYSTEM PRESENT A CONTINUOUS GRADIENT OF PHYSICAL CONDITIONS … WE REASON THAT PRODUCER AND CONSUMER COMMUNITIES CHARACTERISTIC OF A GIVEN RIVER REACH BECOME ESTABLISHED IN HARMONY WITH THE DYNAMIC PHYSICAL CONDITIONS OF THE CHANNEL.” — ROBIN VANNOTE, Ph.D., THE RIVER CONTINUUM CONCEPT (1980)

The publication of the River Continuum Concept 40 years ago changed forever the world’s understanding of streams and rivers. In it, the Stroud Center’s Robin Vannote and his colleagues describe the river itself, from its headwaters to its mouth, as a single, albeit ever-changing, community of living organisms. Indeed, the entire watershed, land and waters, is to be understood as an interconnected community in which a change to one part ripples through the entire system.

For millions of years before the advent of human civilization, rain fell to earth and then moved through a matrix of forests, wetlands, and thriving streams and rivers before ending its journey in one of the planet’s five oceans. Recreating parts of this once-massive “green sponge” on our heavily deforested, farmed, and developed landscape is both the art and science of restoration. It is also, as we will see on the next two pages, critical for the protection of clean water.

Because the Stroud Center’s Robin L. Vannote, Ph.D., Watershed Restoration Program believes that humans are a central part of the watershed community, the staff works with our partners and land users to implement natural solutions to regenerate soils and safeguard fresh water, solutions that benefit both human communities and the entire ecosystem.

“We are particularly active with farmers,” says Lamonte Garber. “They manage nearly a billion acres in this country, and restored habitats on their farms can transform the landscape and contribute constructively to issues ranging from soil health to climate change.”

Get Involved
Stroud Water Research Center works hand in hand with landowners, helping them use their land more effectively through whole-farm planning and watershed stewardship. Visit stroudcenter.org/restoration for more information.

This article was originally published in Stroud Water Research Center’s 2019 annual report.