“The river has taught me to listen; and you will learn from it, too.” — Herman Hesse STABLE RIVERS AND FLOODPLAINS


Stable rivers and streams that wend their way across long established valley bottoms tend to have functional floodplains (Photo 1-1). A floodplain is a naturally occurring streamside feature (created by the river) where the river safely spills excess flow during flood events. Flooding of the river onto the floodplain serves to attenuate flows, dissipate energy, deposit sediments (especially nutrient rich fine-textured sediments), recharge the shallow alluvial water table, nurture streambank vegetation, create diverse habitats, and sustain communiPhoto 1-1. A meandering channel with a broad accessible floodplain. ties of riparian-dependent plant and animal Ute Creek, Harding County, N.M.* (Photo by Tamara Gadzia) species, including humans. Floodplains are essential to the proper functioning plines of geology, hydrology, fluvial geomorphology, of many—but not all—types of rivers. Floodplains are biology, and ecology for knowledge and guidance. As pressure relief valves, escape ramps for rivers swollen an art, it strives to assist the stream in its natural evoluby rainfall or melting snows. By temporarily diverting tion, using the power of floods to shape the channel and flood waters onto adjacent floodplains, rivers effecbanks over time. As a philosophy, Induced Meandering tively reduce the erosion of their beds and banks that strives to understand the river’s processes and immuwould otherwise result from concentrated, high veloctable rules, and to be guided by the understanding that ity flows. The energy is spread broadly across vegetatnatural river forces are to be respected, never coerced. ed sites which can more effectively resist the erosive Induced Meandering is evolving as a practical force. Without the relief afforded by floodplains, large method of restoring straightened or incised stream flood flows would concentrate energy in the channel channels occurring within alluvial valley bottoms, usitself, causing increasing rates of bank and bed erosion ing structures such as baffles and weirs made of natural with increasing discharge. A river without a floodplain materials (Chapter 5). Not all channels are appropriate is a river confined… a river whose vulnerability only candidates for Induced Meandering, but the Induced multiplies with increasing discharge. Meandering philosophy of “going with the flow” and paying attention to long term processes can provide a platform for all stream and wetland restoration INDUCED MEANDERING projects. A river or stream that has carved a niche or Induced Meandering is at once a science, an art, and a path for itself through exposed bedrock, such as the philosophy of river restoration. It is a method of transColorado River through the Grand Canyon, is beyond forming incised channels by guiding the river’s work. the purview of this method. Induced Meandering will As a science, Induced Meandering relies on the discionly work if the channel has erodible banks. Likewise, *Blue arrows denote flow direction.  


steep mountain streams cascading through narrow ravines or stepping through accumulated boulder fields are not stream types where energy is normally dissipated through meandering. In general, streams steeper than four percent dissipate energy through step pools or channel roughness. Streams in very small watersheds, less than 1/2 square mile, where the expected flood energy is small relative to the energy required to erode and transport material from the banks, may not be suitable for Induced Meandering either. Finally, any river that has ready access to an adjoining floodplain and is seemingly at ease with its place on the valley floor is also not the focus of Induced Meandering, unless a specific problem can be anticipated and corrected. “If it Photo 1-2. Pueblo Colorado Wash at Hubbell Trading Post, the birthplace of Induced ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Meandering, near Ganado Ariz., Apache County. (Photo by Bill Zeedyk) Induced Meandering is one method among several for recauses of channel incision, and to describe improved storing sinuosity and floodplain access to straightland management practices and channel treatments ened and incised river channels or downcut rivers that might lead to channel stability and floodplain that once had accessible floodplains, based on the creation. historical record and the characteristic features of Many factors, including natural and unnatural their valleys (Photo 1-2). Another very successdisturbances, weather events, and environmental ful restoration technique, when correctly applied, trends, can cause sudden and drastic downcutting. is Natural Channel Design developed by Dr. Dave Induced Meandering has been used on small first orRosgen of Colorado. Both techniques are based on der streams, and all the way up to fifth order streams, using an apparently stable stream segment, or referin New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico.1 Geomorphic ence reach, as a template for restoration and both require proper training to apply correctly. data substantiating this method have been collected This book describes, and then uses, the Rosgen on project reaches of the Pueblo Colorado Wash at Stream Channel Classification System, a form and the Hubbell Trading Post near Ganado, Arizona, (9 process-based classification system that includes years of data), and on the Galisteo River near Santa descriptions of natural stream channel evolutionary Fe, New Mexico (6 years of data) and other areas sequences. This system fosters greater understand(Photo 1-2). ing of complex channel stability issues. By studying Again, the methods, treatments and practices the degree of variance of any channel from its more described here are not intended for application to stable form, we hope to gain insight about the varied apparently stable channels.


Chapter 1: Introduction

Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels


An incised channel is defined as one where its bed has eroded to a depth such that the stream has lost access to its floodplain (Watson 2002). An incised river spreads outward by eroding its banks, creating the space it needs to accommodate a floodplain. If a river has become incised, either from natural or unnatural causes, it will tend to evolve through a series of successional stages toward the long-term predictable form (equilibrium) reminiscent of the pre-disturbance channel type. Classic papers on river morphology demonstrate how a new channel will evolve toward stability at a lower base elevation as controlled by a lower nick point — for example, an erosion-resistant rock formation or other feature. Channel evolution tends to proceed sporadically in response to random or stochastic events and is subject to reversal — a stuttering process at best. The aim of Induced Meandering is to speed up the natural process of channel formation by removing some of the stochastic nature of the process.

Causes of Channel Incision

What are the causes of channel incision? How and why do rivers lose access to their floodplains? What actions, events or disturbances initiate, expedite or accelerate the process of downcutting? Conversely, what sorts of actions can stop or even reverse downcutting, thereby permitting floodplain formation? Incised streams and gullies, both perennial and ephemeral, are common throughout dryland regions

of the American Southwest and the world. To what extent is the occurrence of such channel incision related to human activity and what portion is natural? Channel incision can be deliberate or inadvertent as the direct or indirect result of human activity. Direct causes of incision include deliberate channelization and straightening of stream channels for flood control, irrigation, agriculture and urban development (Photo 1-4). Rivers are often straightened and deepened inadvertently due to encroachment by roads, railroads and pipelines on floodplains (Brooker 1985). Channel incision has occurred throughout the Southwest as the result of stream capture by low-standard “two-track” roads, livestock trails, and old wagon roads (Zeedyk 2006) (Photo 1-3). Incision can also occur indirectly as the result of deteriorating hydrological conditions in the watershed. As described by William Graf in Chapter 2 of Fluvial Processes in Dryland Rivers, “Channel erosion is obviously the result of the disruption of some previous state of near-equilibrium by alterations in the amount or rate of delivery of water, sediment, or both to the channel system.” (Graf 2002) If the hydrologic condition of the watershed deteriorates, the ability of soils to absorb precipitation through infiltration and percolation lessen, while runoff increases. Hydrologic condition can be impaired by soil compaction, a reduction in plant cover, humus, and organic matter, and the disruption of vegetation shoots and roots in the soil profile. Overgrazing by livestock, soil tillage, an imbalance in the fire cycle, and urban

Photo 1-3. An incised channel, i.e., a channel with no floodplain. Incision due to stream capture by a wagon road, Seally Canyon, Colfax County, N.M. (Photo by Bill Zeedyk)

Photo 1-4. Pueblo Colorado Wash at Hubbell Trading Post, Ariz. Mechanically straightened and deepened for flood control, Apache County, Ariz. (Photo by Bill Zeedyk)

Chapter 1: Introduction 


and ex-urban development can all lead to deteriorating watershed condition, resulting in accelerated runoff and increased discharge for the same magnitude of precipitation. Stable channels become overloaded and expand to accommodate increasing sediment and discharge. Depending on the micro-topography of the site, the relative resistance of the channel bed and banks, as well as the sediment supply, a previously stable channel may incise by scouring its bed, enlarge by bilateral erosion of its banks, or rise and widen as it becomes choked with sediment. All of these may occur in the same place over time. Channels that initially deepen more readily than they widen will become isolated from their floodplains. When the floodplains are no longer within reach of normal high water, the channel has become incised. Water tables drop and the capillary zone that sustains riparian plant growth disappears. Former floodplains become dry terraces, and plant communities shift from wetland or wetland-edge species to upland species.

Reasons for Keeping a Channel Incised

While speeding up the channel evolutionary process of floodplain development might produce a wealth of ecological benefits in a wildland setting, keeping a river confined to an incised channel can also produce a contrasting set of economic advantages, albeit at the expense of the environment. Some economic advantages include mosquito and flood control, protection of urban or agricultural lands, irrigated fields, and infrastructure such as highways, roads, railroads, and bridges. Where necessary, an incised channel can be used to protect valuable infrastructure from flooding. There is also the real estate development potential of historic wetlands. Such considerations are important, yet the benefits of a meandering channel should not be dismissed out of hand in favor of the incised form, especially where the ecological or flood control values of a meandering channel are greater than, for example, the protection of a fence line.

Historic Impacts

Many southwestern rivers have been widely altered and have suffered devastating episodes of channel incision over the course of recent human history,

i.e., since the arrival of Europeans, and increasingly with recent development of southwestern lands and resources. Several widespread historic land uses have led to dramatic and long lasting impacts: stream capture by historic but long abandoned wagon roads, stream capture by livestock trailing through wet meadows paralleling stream courses, river hijacking by irrigation ditches and diversion dams, floodplain encroachment and confinement by early railroads— especially logging railroads—and stream channel realignment and relocation by farmers determined to create larger and more manageable crop fields along river bottoms. Examples are almost too numerous to mention, for example, wagon roads turned into gullies are common on the Navajo Reservation. Gullies caused by cattle trailing are widespread. The now incised beds of the Rio San Pedro and Rio San Miguel near Cuba, New Mexico are the result of their courses being rerouted by now abandoned acequias or irrigation ditches. Bluewater Creek near Thoreau, New Mexico, and Seally Creek on the Valle Vidal are deeply incised due to encroachment by logging railroads. The Dry Cimarron River near Folsom, New Mexico, the Sapello and Mora Rivers (also in New Mexico) and Nutrioso Creek near Springerville, Arizona, are all deeply incised due to realignments to facilitate crop field development.2 Classic examples of channel incision resulting from agricultural, municipal, or industrial development include: Spur Lake Basin: An extensive wetland near Luna, New Mexico that was drained for agriculture, but soon deteriorated into a maze of deep, everexpanding gullies. Santa Fe River: As far back as the 1830s, in order to facilitate real estate development along the Santa Fe River in Santa Fe, New Mexico, city fathers encouraged backfilling of the river’s floodplain to contain floods, and gravel mining to deepen the channel (Photo 1-5). The riverbed is now deeply incised for miles. Recently the city embarked upon an ambitious program to re-meander the river, restore the riparian zone, insure minimum flow releases from city reservoirs, and build streamside biking and


Chapter 1: Introduction

Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels

Photo 1-5 (left). Santa Fe River at San Ysidro Crossing, Santa Fe County, N.M. before channel reconstruction work. (Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Watershed Association) Photo 1-6 (above). Santa Fe River, San Ysidro Crossing after channel reconstruction.* (Photo by Steve Vrooman)

hiking trails for the enjoyment of its citizens. Opportunities for using Induced Meandering are limited to selected reaches where space is available for the river to meander. Due to existing infrastructure and ownership patterns, these opportunities are limited to public lands. Where infrastructure and private property values are at risk, traditional engineering treatments, such as hardened channels, are being utilized to meet planned objectives. As a result of these constraints, both Induced Meandering and traditional engineering are being used on this project (Photo 1-6).3 Walnut Creek Ranger Station: During the 1930s, in order to alleviate occasional flooding of the historic Walnut Creek Ranger Station on the Prescott National Forest near Prescott, Arizona, the US Forest Service dynamited a tough quartzite dike to lower the riverbed.4 The next flood initiated a round of headcutting that unzipped the valley for miles upstream to a depth of 20 feet. With current knowledge and understanding of riparian area values, one wonders what the cost of relocating the ranger station to higher ground would have been [at that time], compared with the ecological services lost from the destroyed riparian area. *Yellow arrows  denote photo match points.

Big Bug Creek and Hopewell Basins: Because of the large amounts of silt that it adds to previously clear running streams and the amounts of vegetation removed, placer mining or hydraulic dredging, as widespread as the natural occurrence of gold itself, has devastated many miles of alluvial valleys throughout the Southwest, including places with intriguing names like Big Bug Creek in Arizona, and Hopewell in New Mexico.5 The Galisteo Basin, south and east of Santa Fe, New Mexico has suffered centuries of human impacts that have caused the main stem of Galisteo Creek and most of its tributaries to become deeply incised throughout the watershed (Figure 1-1, page 6). These impacts, beginning with vegetative type conversion from grassland to piñon-juniper woodland under the Pueblo cultures of the 13th century, overgrazing by cattle, sheep and goats, with the advent of Spanish expeditions around 1540 CE, continue to this day. Initial impacts were followed by the loss of the beaver to the fur trade in the early 1800s, and the coming of the Santa Fe Trail and its wagons which caused deeply incised gullies to form. The Santa Fe Trail was protected by the US Cavalry at Fort Marcy with its thousands of horses that grazed the fertile wetlands. The Trail was soon supplanted by the railroad, the course of which closely followed the river, even usurping the river bed

Chapter 1: Introduction 



Figure 1-1. Digital elevation map of the Galisteo Watershed. The Galisteo Creek flows 54 miles from its headwaters in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains west to the Rio Grande and has a watershed area of 730 square miles. (Map courtesy of Earth Analytic, Inc. and Earth Works Institute, 2006)

itself where needed (Photo 1-7). The presence of the railroad led to clearcutting of mountain forests for railroad ties and timber, and the newly cleared forests were soon burned and severely grazed, further impacting watershed condition. But it was the railroad itself that probably caused the most severe incision of the river culminating with the flood of 1926, when the bed dropped 10-15 feet over long distances. Today, severe headcutting and downcutting continue, much of it fed by a proliferation of roads as former ranchlands are being subdivided and developed for exurban ranchettes. A Photo 1-7. In the 1880s, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway shoved Galisteo Creek to the side of its valley, Santa Fe County, detailed account of the history of the Galisteo N.M. See Figure 1-1 RR . (Photo by Jan-Willem Jansens) Watershed can be found in Appendix A, The Galisteo Watershed: Centuries in the Making, by Jan-Willem Jansens and Lucy Lippard.


Chapter 1: Introduction

Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels

Acequias and Irrigation Diversions
An acequia (Arabic word for irrigation ditch) is an artificially constructed conveyance channel. Acequias are usually built parallel with the river, along the edge of the valley, where water can be diverted to irrigate crops and pastures on the river terrace (Photo 1-8). Acequias have been used prehistorically throughout Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. Many historical acequias have been in service since before the Mexican American War of 1846 and are protected under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). Many acequias are lovingly maintained—often Photo 1-8. An unlined irrigation ditch on the The Nature lined with towering old cottonwood trees and or- Conservancy’s Gila River Farm, Grant County, N.M. (Photo by Van Clothier) chards, and the subject of traditional ceremonies for annual cleaning and blessing (Rivera 1998). Acequias are the livelihood of many remote mountain communities. Unfortunately, not all acequias are well designed or properly maintained, especially where communities are dying or moving away from agriculture. Many have fallen into disrepair and have captured either the main stem of the river or intercepted tributary channels, often resulting in channel erosion with severe downcutting and gully proliferation. Some have carried the entire flow of the main river for so long that the natural riverbed is no longer recognized as such. Others are in earlier stages of incision and have yet Photo 1-9. Concrete irrigation ditch on the The Nature Conservancy’s Gila River Farm. (Photo by Van Clothier) to alter the drainage pattern in a significant way. Recommended actions for abandoned ditches Where community bonds remain strong, proper maintenance and regular cleaning can keep ditches in stable condition.6 In some cases, ditches are converted to lined systems to conserve water (Photo 1-9). Modern diversion structures can be built to reduce maintenance costs (Photo 1-10). Where ditches have become obsolete or have been abandoned, several actions are recommended: 1) Return stream flow to the natural channel or riverbed by permanently blocking the ditch or removing the diversion structure. This might require some grooming of the natural channel to assure Photo 1-10. Rosgen-designed irrigation diversion channel using a cross-vane. (Photo by Steve Carson) sufficient capacity. 2) Abandoned ditches need to be drained at frequent intervals to return captured flow to the natural landform. Abandoned ditches can continue to convey hillslope runoff, diverting flows from one sub-watershed to another wherever the ditch has breached. This creates gullies that eventually drain to pre-existing natural channels, overloading them with excess runoff and causing accelerated erosion. In the meantime, hillslopes and small drainageways downslope of the ditches are deprived of their fair share of runoff, and the vegetation suffers. 3) Where abandoned ditches have eroded too deeply to be breached or drained, it may be desirable to apply Induced Meandering or channel reconstruction methods to create a meandering channel with a new floodplain in order to avoid further incision.

Chapter 1: Introduction 


In the arid Southwest, water is a valuable natural resource commanding a very high price, yet our attitude towards its use and distribution can be schizophrenic. Water is treated as both a precious commodity and a bothersome nuisance. Where water is needed for farming and ranching, municipal, industrial, or domestic purposes, it often becomes the substance of controversy. As Mark Twain once said, “In the West, whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting Photo 1-11. Kayaking down a Tucson, Arizona street after a rainstorm. Noover.”7 tice how the neighborhood trees are high and dry while the street conveys

Impacts of Urbanization

away the rain runoff. (Photo by Brad Lancaster from his book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, Vol. 1 2006)

Where water is viewed as a nuisance, such as storm water runoff from a highway, subdivision or shopping mall, the objective is to get rid of it cheaply, easily, and effectively, often without regard to the consequences. Concentrated flows of nuisance water from such areas can quickly overload the receiving stream, causing downcutting of its channel. The tendency to treat water as a nuisance at upscale subdivisions and ex-urban ranchettes is often exacerbated by the legal absurdities of our litigious society. Spilling water from one’s yard, driveway or parking area onto the neighbor’s property can potentially lead to a costly lawsuit for the recovery of alleged damages. In order to protect themselves, a common practice for developers or homeowners is to lead nuisance runoff from the rooftop to the parking area, to the driveway, and finally to the public street (Photo 1-11). The municipality responsible for minimizing the cost of getting rid of runoff routes the water down the street to the first natural drainage. Hydrologic connectivity of flow from rooftop to arroyo is thus established. The resulting overload in the natural drainage soon results in a new round of downcutting and erosion. Effects are cumulative, with all landowners making their small contribution to the growing problem. During the summer monsoon season of 2006, Las Huertas Creek at Placitas, New Mexico experienced four large storm events in less than two months’ time. Roads, bridges, and culverts were washed away and replaced, only to be washed away again. Homeowners

fronting Las Huertas Creek suffered property loss, a potentially dangerous gas pipeline was exposed, and the channel incised an average of seven feet over many miles, with one exception. During the preceding 20 years, urban development had converted much of the watershed from native vegetation to roads, rooftops and parking areas. While the frequency and intensity of the 2006 storms was severe, the pattern of the storm discharge was clearly related to the adverse effects on the hydrologic condition of the watershed caused by urban development, which expedited storm water routing. Long term residents of the Las Placitas Community are few. Some among them remember how Las Huertas Creek once appeared, with its cottonwood-willow bosque, or riparian forest, and small perennial pools that were home to fish, frogs and water striders. The question now before the community is whether or not to establish a flood control district which would route all flows through concrete lined drainage ditches, forever sacrificing Las Huertas Creek and its riparian forest in the process. Many communities have this difficult choice ahead of them. Some landowners are anxious to save what is left and protect their properties from the drying effects of further downcutting. Efforts are being made to stabilize the channel bed with weirs and natural appearing grade control structures, to increase channel length and sinuosity by reconnecting the existing channel


Chapter 1: Introduction

Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels

drying out slope wetlands upstream and downstream of the tracks. When Highway 54 was built in the 1930s parallel to the railroad, channels were further impacted by the installation of culverts or bridge crossings. (Figure 1-2, page 10). These impacts have changed a braided distributary channel and slope wetland into an incised channel with concentrated flows replacing ephemeral wetlands with upland grasses. If the stream had been routed through multiple culverts passing under the railroad embankment rather than a single large unPhoto 1-12. Baffle construction on Las Huertas Creek, Sandoval County, derpass, channelization would have been avoided and productivity of the landscape N.M. (Photo by Steve Carson) maintained. To resolve the problem the channel would need to be reconnected with its floodwith its abandoned reaches, and by installing Induced plain and sheet flow restored. Check dams would not Meandering treatments to preserve or expand meander solve the problem; they would only create new ones bends (Photo 1-12). One incised reach 1,400 feet long, upon failure. Historic floodplain access would need to which had been treated using the Induced Meandering be restored, creating an environment where riparian method only two years prior to the destructive 2006 vegetation could build new soil and hold moisture in monsoon season, experienced significant widening and place. yet it did not downcut. In other words, the flood prone The causes of channel incision are many, and area of the creek was significantly increased by the the effects are widespread throughout the drylands force of the flood—the treatment worked! In the treatof the American Southwest. The challenge facing ed reach, the water table did not drop and the area is restorationists seems overwhelming, yet an exciting naturally re-vegetating with willows, cottonwoods and rediscovery of ancient techniques and a new focus on other woody riparian species along the newly formed stream restoration offers hope. banks. Unfortunately, in adjacent untreated reaches, the streambed downcut as much as seven feet.

Transportation System Impacts

Entering a Modern Era

Roads and railroads built over the last 125 years continue to impact drainages throughout the Southwest. Where roads and railroads cross drainages, streams are often channelized or narrowed to accommodate trestles and bridges. This leads to changes in flow patterns, which leads, in turn, to loss of soil and the conversion of historic wetlands and floodplain plant communities to drier sites that support only relatively unproductive upland vegetation. For example, in the early 1900s the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad (EP&N) built a line from Carrizozo to Corona, New Mexico, crossing many drainages. Where trestles were installed, sheet flow was channelized to move flows under the trestle,

Going back to the earlier discussion of the impacts resulting from urbanization, an alternative to the above scenario would be to require developers and landowners to retain storm runoff on the originating property until infiltration and percolation matched or exceeded the natural condition. This could be accomplished with water harvesting earthworks such as detention basins that incorporate vegetated infiltration zones. Establishing drainage easements and drainage ways across adjacent properties might serve to keep runoff within its originating basin, allowing more time for infiltration to occur and extending the lag time or travel time between rooftop and arroyo, thus reducing and delaying the flood crest as compared with routing the water along paved travelways. The argument against this

Chapter 1: Introduction 






Figure 1-2. Google Earth ™ map: El Paso and Northeastern Railroad channel crossing, Lincoln County, N.M. Channelization by railroad drained a former slope wetland, creating a gully that was exacerbated by highway construction. Green dash line denotes historical wetland area. Photos: A1 is the view upstream from Highway 54; A2, downstream. B1 is the view upstream from the railroad trestle; B2, downstream. (Photos by Tamara Gadzia)


Chapter 1: Introduction

Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels

alternative, of course, is that the cost of building homes would increase, thus imposing a hardship on potential buyers and reducing the breadth of the market. This argument is effectively dismantled by Brad Lancaster, “We harvest stormwater runoff from streets into our landscapes. Streets then become passive irrigators of beautiful shade trees lining the streets and walkways. This inexpensive greenfrastructure reduces the need for conventional, costly, concrete-clad storm drains.” (Lancaster 2006)

Check Dams and Gabion Baskets

Attempts at channel stabilization in incised systems, though well-intended, ignore the long term natural processes governing stream channel evolution. The most commonly used short term treatments are small check dams, mechanical streambank armoring, and gully plugs. Most are destined to fail over the long term, often with unforeseen, but disastrous consequences.

Photo 1-13. A gabion structure on Los Alamos Creek, Los Alamos County, N.M. (Photo by Van Clothier)

Check dams are hand or machine built structures usually constructed of rocks, logs, concrete, wire, brush, or a combination of materials. They are meant to stop further erosion of the channel by catching sediment and raising the channel bed. Emphasis is on damming up the channel and checking or slowing stream velocity. A gabion basket is a popular type of check dam. Check dams have enjoyed great favor for many years among well-intentioned conservationists and are the “solution” of choice for many novices to the world of stream channel stabilization. For many years the principal author advocated their use and oversaw construction in many situations. The charm of check dams is seductive, with the promise of instant gratification. Build a check dam today, go fishing tomorrow. The charm is even more infatuating when structures are built with gabion baskets (Photo 1-13). They look so rigid, so geometrical, so orderly, so impregnable, so professional. How could they possibly fail? What is likely to happen to a gabion basket during a very large flood? What if the galvanized wire is broken by stones or merely nicked so that it may begin rust? The problem with the use of check dams, whether they be fashioned of piled stones, rolled earth, stacked logs, sandbags, tire bales, gabion baskets, or steelreinforced concrete, is that they are structurally unreliable in both the short term and long term (Photos 1-14, 1-15). As Dr. David Rosgen puts it, “A river does not want to be a lake.” The rule applies whether the river be an arroyo, a gully, a mountain stream or desert wash.

Photo 1-14. A failed gabion basket/check dam, Pima County, Ariz. (Photo by Owen Hablutzel)

Photo 1-15. Failed tire bale check dam, Pima County, Ariz. (Photo by Owen Hablutzel)

Chapter 1: Introduction 


Photo 1-16. Failed gabion baskets rolling down Guaje Creek, Los Alamos County, N.M. (Photo by Van Clothier)

Photo 1-17. Failed jetty jacks on Mimbres River, Grant County, N.M., 2005. (Photo by Van Clothier)

As soon as it is built, many natural processes of hydrology, geomorphology, and ecology, begin tearing down a check dam (Photo 1-16). A powerful and unrelenting force bent on destroying a check dam is the weight of stored water (potential energy) seeking to find its own level. Water pressure seeps, trickles, and eventually pours through any and all weak or vulnerable spots, or around or under the structure, turning tiny leaks into gaping wounds. Often the wound spawns a headcut and creates a gully. Stored water behind a check dam is not inert; it is chemically active and powerful. It can sometimes leach and dissolve soluble compounds from the dam, the pond and wetted area, flushing them downstream. Burrowing animals, such as beavers, muskrats, pocket gophers and other rodents create tunnels through earthen dams, creating leaks leading to eventual failure. Check dams have no place in Induced Meandering or Natural Channel Design!

Photo 1-18. Expensive repairs using rock mattress and iron rails to the same site as photo 1-17, 2008. (Photo by Van Clothier)

thousand places by abrasive gravel during a flood, the wire rusts and eventually releases stones to the creek. A better alternative is to use bioengineering with native vegetation, willows and cottonwood plantings, which provide beautiful and self repairing bank protection, and a prettier picnic spot than rusty wire.

Streambank Armoring

Mechanical streambank armoring can take many forms, from old cars to simple rip-rap, to wire reinforced rock mattresses, to concrete revetments. Armoring is intended to hold banks in place, control erosion, and speed the flow of water down the channel (Photos 1-17, 1-18, 1-19). The consequences of channel armoring are to prevent or delay development of a floodplain and to transfer stream energy downstream. Until the structure is removed by the creek, this treatment can increase downstream erosion and accelerate incision, or bed scour. Channel armoring often fails over time. When galvanized wire becomes nicked in a

Gully Plugs

A gully plug or sediment trap is a small to mediumsized dam made of earth or other materials. Gully plugs are used to stop downcutting, impound water, contain sediments, and arrest headcutting. They are often built for livestock watering and wildlife habitat. In many situations, gully plugs intercept the bulk of a runoff event and tend to dry out the downstream channel while the impoundment fills with sediment over time. Beneficial consequences can be found in a few cases where seepage from the impoundment provides sufficient perennial flow to promote the growth of riparian species. Leaky dams are generally thought to


Chapter 1: Introduction

Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels

Photo 1-19. Mechanical bank armoring installed on an emergency basis following the disastrous Cerro Grande Fire, Los Alamos Creek, Los Alamos County, N.M. (Photo by Van Clothier)

Photo 1-20. A tire bale gully plug, Rio Puerco side drainage, Sandoval County, N.M. What will happen when the bailing wire rusts? (Photo by Van Clothier)

be failures by their builders because the water is not effectively impounded. The unintended harmful effects of gully plugs are the loss of stream flow due to capture in the ponded area, loss of sediment needed for building new floodplains downstream from the plug, and infestation by noxious weeds or other undesirable plant species, livestock concentration, and the creation of mosquito and bullfrog habitat. Bullfrogs are non-native species that can cause local extinction of endangered native frogs such as the leopard frog. Over the long run, most gully plugs tend to fill with sediment and then fail catastrophically, spilling the stored sediments back into the channel, and sometimes creating an anthropogenic flood of much greater proportion than any natural flood for the watershed. In the case of the tire bale gully plug in a tributary of the Rio Puerco, the failure scenario involves scattering hundreds of old tires for many miles downstream (Photo 1-20).

The goal of Induced Meandering is to read the agenda of the stream and to speed the process along by orchestrating the natural forces. Removing the randomness from channel evolutionary processes means enjoying the benefits of a stable river sooner than would occur naturally.


Incised streams follow an evolutionary process of bank erosion and floodplain deposition that, over time, may lead them back to their pre-disturbance form. The process can be orderly, but it is usually chaotic and subject to stochastic events. A leaning tree, a slumping bank, a log jam, or an ice flow can divert river currents left or right, forming a sediment bar or eroding a bank that is now out of step with other channel-developing patterns. Because time is of no consequence to a river, eventually the channel will arrive at a predictable form as appropriate to its watershed, sediment load, and valley type (Appendix B).

Photo 1-21. An incised river creating new floodplain. Rio Puerco, Sandoval County, N.M. (Photo by Mike Chavez)

Chapter 1: Introduction 


A stream can take many forms, each suited to its flood characteristics, and each using its available energy to deal with the sediment load delivered to it by upstream reaches and tributaries. A stream is continually adjusting to accommodate change, and performing in its own time and at its own speed. Where the stream has been turned into a sluiceway to achieve human purposes, there will be inevitable consequences, according to natural laws, which may include bed and Photo 1-22. Hen mallard and ducklings on point bar. (Photo by Deborah Myrin) bank erosion, or excessive sediment selves over time through the synergistic interaction of deposition and flooding (Photo 1-21, page 13). geomorphic and ecological processes. The beauty of a natural river is that while it is wholly Examples of microhabitats that have been widely effective over the long term in moving mountains toward observed in response to Induced Meandering projects the sea, it is seldom fully efficient at any given place or and practices include: time. Reaches catch debris, plug up, widen or narrow, build shoals, riffles, runs, eddies, pointbars, cutoff chan•• the formation of new sand and gravel bars used by nels, mudflats, oxbow lakes, scour pools and waterfalls. foraging ducks, sandpipers, and nesting killdeer at Hardly orderly, but productive and rich in diverse life baffles (Photo 1-22); forms. Many varied plant and animal habitats would not •• at the same baffles, the subsequent colonization occur in the river at all were it not for such imperfections. of aquatic and riparian grasses and grass-like Life goes with the flow, exploiting every niche and nuplants providing rich feeding areas for deer, elk, ance of a river’s morphology. wild turkeys, muskrats, beavers, geese, ducks, and snipe; ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF •• and later, expanding patches of willows and INDUCED MEANDERING cottonwood sustaining a variety of wildlife that utilize the trunk, branches, and crowns of trees; Habitat diversity comprised of many different microand macrohabitats sustains life in all its many forms, •• in the new alluvial deposits, a rising water table; including human life. •• while opposite the baffles, first ephemeral and subMicrohabitats are small places possessing unique sequently perennial pools form beneath undercut characteristics that set them apart from their surroundbanks, meeting the needs of various fish, insect, ings. They provide certain conditions that meet the and amphibian, species; and very specific needs of dependent plant or animal spe•• at boulder weirs and cross-vanes, scour pools decies. velop that sustain aquatic insects and other species Induced Meandering, Natural Channel Design, or through prolonged periods of low flow. appropriate bioengineering can provide the means, and the opportunity to initiate and sustain a complex diverThere are those who believe that rivers and nature sity of microhabitats. The various treatments employed exists solely to do the bidding of humankind. Such in the practice of Induced Meandering set in motion bidding might be to lift and convey ships in comforces that alter stream channels and in so doing cremerce, irrigate fields and pastures, quench the thirst ate various types of microhabitats. Once established, of burgeoning cities, transport human waste, route such habitats evolve and change and recreate themfloodwaters, or turn electric turbines. Perhaps the ideal


Chapter 1: Introduction

Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels

river for such purposes is deep and straight, with steep concrete banks, minimal obstructions, regulated flow, and neatly groomed riverside parks on high terraces beyond the reach of probable flooding. However, hardened stream banks and artificially maintained channels are not the only choice. Maintaining healthy rivers by applying the concepts of Induced Meandering and Natural Channel Design is

an achievable alternative to the engineered river. This alternative provides a natural succession of micro- and macrohabitats, while at the same time routing floodwaters safely, transporting sediment smoothly, and storing drinking water in the valley alluvium where it is safe from evaporation or tampering, providing scenic riverside viewscapes and sustaining a wealth of other economic and social values.

1. Montana State University Stream and Riparian Area Management 2. Zeedyk personal observations 3. Santa Fe City Council Minutes 4. Walnut Creek Center for Education and Research 5. Placer mining is the mining of alluvial deposits for minerals. This may be done by open-pit or by various forms of tunneling into ancient riverbeds. Excavation may be accomplished using water pressure (hydraulic mining), surface excavating equipment or tunneling equipment. 6. For more information, visit the New Mexico Acequia Association website at: 7. This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.

Chapter 1: Introduction 


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