7 Challenges That Can Delay River Restoration Projects


Munroe Falls, before after

This blog is a part of our series this month on River Restoration Challenges.

River restoration projects are multi-stage projects, including project design, permitting, construction, and monitoring. Projects can also contain multiple components, such as the removal of a dam or other barrier, riparian corridor improvements, or water trail creation. Each stage can present issues or complications that impact the forward progress of the projects. Here are seven challenges that slow down restoration projects and some ways we work with communities and partners to address these obstacles.

  1. Obtaining landowner support
    This is a critical component of a successful project, and one that can delay a project for months, years, or even indefinitely. Sometimes the owners of high-priority river restoration projects are not amenable to having their dam removed or their property altered. A project often will not move forward, regardless of its restoration value or importance to the watershed, without landowner support.
  2. Funding
    The cost for river restoration projects can vary widely depending on the size of the barrier, the scope of the project, the project location, and other factors. American Rivers works with numerous federal, state, and local partners, and with foundations and other non-profit organizations, to secure the financial resources necessary to complete projects. However, we find some projects are easier to fund than others depending on the specific ecological or community benefits that will be realized by the project’s completion and how closely they align with a particular funding entity. For example, some funding opportunities can only be applied to actual project implementation and will not fund any project design or assessment. Also, depending on the cost of the project, multiple funding sources are often needed to fulfill projected budget needs. In some cases, the project must be undertaken in a phased approach, which can delay the project as originally planned but could result in a more favorable outcome.
  3. Gaining community support
    For every dam that is in poor condition, contributes to flooding, or has been the site of an accidental drowning, there are also dams with an existing use, where there is an emotional community attachment, or that are considered historic. American Rivers works to engage the public in understanding the benefits of river restoration projects so that people will understand the project alternatives and costs, and that by removing a dam, they are gaining a free-flowing river that could be more accessible for recreation and will provide healthier, reconnected habitat for aquatic species.
  4. Permitting
    Regulatory approval is a necessary step in river restoration projects. However, many states are finding that the application of existing permitting processes can be unreasonably complicated, time consuming, and expensive for both the applicant and regulatory authorities. Indeed, dam failures have occurred during the prolonged process of permitting their controlled removal, and due to its multidisciplinary nature, permitting decisions often fall under the jurisdiction of several entities. We work with regulatory agencies to streamline these processes and, on a project-by-project basis, ensure they are engaged early in the process.
  5. Existing site conditions
    Challenging site conditions can lead to a prolonged design phase, as well as permitting and funding delays. These site conditions can include everything from the presence of utility lines and other urban infrastructure to a confined valley location that creates difficult site access.
  6. Stream restrictions 
    Depending on the life cycle of certain species, regulatory agencies may exclude access to streams during certain seasons to ensure that restoration projects do not interfere with migration, spawning, or rearing. Stream restrictions are generally identified during project planning, and any delay caused by them is factored into the project timeframe. Likewise, weather and flow conditions can dictate project timing. Low-flow conditions are optimal for a restoration project’s successful completion, but achieving these conditions can cause delay if not factored into the project schedule. Unusually heavy rains, significant spring snowmelt, and even snow storms will delay a project.
  7. Experienced practitioners
    While it’s easy to see why some project owners rely on the services of their general engineering consultants for river restoration, this can lead to project delays and the potential for additional project challenges. River restoration is a specialized field, and in our experience, added training or familiarity with these types of projects can ensure a more realistic timeline and increased likelihood of project success.

To learn more about how we’ve dealt with similar challenges, check back in to the blog and over on our Facebook page all month!