Donate | Join | Print Page | Sign In
Letter from SER Executive Director Bethanie Walder

Volume 30 Issue 6 | December 2016
River Restoration


The snow is falling and small ice floes are forming on the rivers around Missoula, Montana thanks to several days of wintry sub-zero weather. I find fresh winter snow to be hopeful, and it’s with some hope that I try to look past the US elections and the potential ecological (and other) consequences. As an SER member, I know you care about the environment. And we all know that at this critical juncture for climate, the possibility of the US backing out of the Paris Agreement and increasing extractive and degrading activities is alarming to say the least. But as members of the Society we can focus on the fact that ecological restoration will continue to be a critical tool for restoring and repairing degraded ecosystems. It is not a tool for justifying further degradation and I can only assume that many of our US members will be working hard to prevent further degradation and to make sure the US does its part to engage in reducing the impacts and severity of climate change. And though I wish that US elections only impacted the US, the potential ecological impacts are, unfortunately, global. As an international organization, with many regional chapters, SER is well positioned to think globally and act locally. We will continue to engage with the many international bodies with whom we already work, including the release of the new International Standards for the Practice of Ecological Restoration.

So we will continue to think globally and act locally, and those ice floes I mentioned above provide a great segue to this issue of SERNews. I live in a city bisected by a river, or as author Norman McLean stated, Missoula is a place where “A River Runs Through It.” In McLean’s book the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers run through his family’s life and the Missoula community’s life. The confluence of these two rivers, it so happens, was also the site of an enormous ecological restoration project when the Milltown Dam was removed in 2008 – almost exactly 100 years after a major flood deposited tons of toxic mining sediment behind the then-new earthen dam.


Milltown dam restoration site in 2016 (Photo credit: Michael Kustudia/Gary Matson)


The heavy-metal laden sediments came from the copper mines of Butte, Montana, and traveled downstream nearly 200 km until they were blocked by the Milltown Dam. The ongoing deposition of sediments eventually earned this stretch of river, and the 540 acre reservoir behind the dam, the dubious distinction of being part of the country’s largest Superfund complex (the Superfund was created by the US government in 1980 to clean up extremely toxic sites).

After a near dam failure because of a massive ice jam in February 1996, ongoing efforts to remove the dam reached new heights, led by Missoula’s Clark Fork Coalition. Finally, in 2005 the state and federal government agreed on final plans to remove the dam and the 6.6 million cubic yards (5 million cubic meters) of toxic sediment that were stored behind it. Work began in 2006, and on March 28, 2008, with hundreds of community members looking on from a bluff high above the river (myself included), a temporary coffer dam was breached and the river was able to bypass the intact dam and flow naturally again. That apparently small act seemed anti-climactic, but in reality, it was monumental and thrilling. It reconnected the natural confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers. It also dewatered the last of the reservoir so the remaining sediments could be removed. And it enabled restorationists to fully remove the entire Milltown Dam.


Milltown dam removal, Missoula, MT, USA © Marcel Huijser


Dam removal is exciting, and it is one of several types of river restoration discussed in this issue of SERNews. The first article, by Pascale Biron, focuses on creating “freedom space for rivers” (FSR) to allow them to flow, flood and function in a more natural way. Pascale discusses this new approach and how it is being implemented in part or in full in several different countries. The second article, by George Heritage, reviews a similar approach to restoring natural river function, specifically looking at new approaches being implemented in the United Kingdom. Ann Riley wrote the third article, introducing her new book, Restoring Neighborhood Streams. Ann’s book is part of the SER/Island Press Restoration Book Series, and we’re delighted that we could include this introduction to her book in SERNews. She specifically talks about decades of research and data collection that points to river restoration methods that work in more urban settings. And the theme closes with an article from Joanna Eyquem about dam removal – covering everything from very small dam removal projects to some of the largest endeavors. I also want to extend a huge thank you to Joanna, for organizing and coordinating the river restoration articles in this issue of SERNews.

Here in Missoula, our river now runs through the city much less encumbered, though it doesn’t necessarily have full freedom space. I hope that as you let yourself drift through the rivers in this issue of SERNews you find some new insights and ideas to apply to your own work, on your own waterways, and in your own communities. And I hope it leaves you inspired and optimistic about the future, and about your own potential to think globally and act locally.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year,

Bethanie Walder


 Next article