Environmental Review Toolkit
Accelerating Project Delivery

Successes in Stewardship
Monthly Newsletter
July 2004

Programmatic Stream Restoration: Improving Project Delivery While Targeting Watershed Priorities

John's Dam Removal Project on the Sandusky State Scenic River in Sandusky County, Ohio

Ohio DOT is one of many State DOTs that takes a programmatic approach to stream restoration.
Above: John's Dam Removal Project on the Sandusky
State Scenic River in Sandusky County, Ohio.

Mitigating Impacts to Aquatic Ecosystems

The impact of infrastructure development can change the natural form and function of a stream, risking damage to aquatic habitats Although sediment is the leading cause of impairment, increases in surface runoff, loss of vegetative buffers along streams, and physical alteration of channels are factors as well. State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) are responding to this problem with renewed attention to erosion and sediment control; they are incorporating stream restoration and conservation efforts into project development. Many DOTs are moving beyond a project-specific approach and practicing programmatic stream restoration. Transportation and regulatory agencies are finding that watershed approaches to enhancing, restoring, and preserving aquatic ecosystems can expedite the environmental review process while maximizing benefits to the ecosystem.

What is Stream Restoration?

Stream restoration re-establishes the general structure, function, and self-sustaining behavior of a stream system to a better functional condition; stabilizes or reverses stream aggradation or degradation; and enables more diverse aquatic habitats. Activities may include:

  • Removing low-head dams or other watershed disturbances that are causing stream instability
  • Installing structures and planting vegetation to protect streambanks and provide habitat
  • Reshaping or replacing unstable stream reaches with appropriately designed stream channels and floodplains.

Benefits of Programmatic
Stream Restoration

  • Provides ecological gains where they are most needed and can be sustained
  • Focuses resources on statewide, regional, or watershed conservation priorities such as restoring important habitats, improving water quality, or saving key parcels from development or degradation
  • Improves project delivery and streamlines Section 404 permitting
  • Sets expectations and commitments for all parties

Moving Toward a Programmatic Approach

The context for initiating programmatic stream restoration is provided by the requirements of the Federal Clean Water Act as well as the environmental stewardship commitments of the State DOT. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires that DOTs obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for projects that cause unavoidable impacts to wetlands and/or streams. DOTs often perform compensatory mitigation, either on site or off site for these impacts. Such mitigation can involve the creation, restoration, enhancement, or preservation of existing wetlands, stream conservation priority areas, and buffers. Off-site mitigation may be used when there is no practicable opportunity for on-site mitigation, or when off-site mitigation is environmentally preferable. According to pending Federal guidance, one of the best tools for determining when off-site or out-of-kind mitigation is environmentally preferable is a holistic watershed plan. In lieu fee (ILF) mitigation programs use fees from DOTs, and other entities that cause impacts to waters of the State, to identify and implement mitigation that addresses conservation and restoration priorities, i.e., what is environmentally preferable on a watershed basis. Such programs thereby streamline the Section 404 process and minimize DOT time spent identifying mitigation sites and negotiating, developing, and carrying out mitigation plans.

Successful Programmatic Stream Restoration Programs

Several states have mitigation programs and other initiatives that address programmatic stream restoration. Three state examples are:

  • North Carolina's Ecosystem Enhancement Program — The North Carolina Department of Transportation has segregated compensatory mitigation from individual permits and project reviews as a result of a programmatic review process. Instead, mitigation is performed on a watershed basis, with mitigation projects constructed in advance of permitted impacts. The process has streamlined environmental review and permitting, and is helping to ensure the replacement of lost functions and the achievement of key watershed restoration objectives around the state. The program selects and designs mitigation projects using watershed assessments and mitigation plans based on the needs of the watershed. Wetlands and stream impacts to each of 52 watersheds in the state are identified for the seven-year State Transportation Improvement Program and used to target watersheds for assessment and mitigation planning. Elements considered in prioritizing restoration projects include the extent of impacts and water quality and habitat needs.
  • Tennessee DOT Stream Restoration In Lieu Fee (ILF) — The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) has donated $2 million to start the Tennessee ILF Stream Restoration fund. State and federal resource agencies identify watershed goals, seek an overall no-net-loss of aquatic benefits, and approve ILF mitigation projects, with assistance from environmental organizations and watershed groups. The programmatic approach allows TDOT to use the ILF fund for stream restoration impacts of all projects, saving TDOT time in locating meaningful mitigation sites and facilitating more effective environmental investments as well as streamlined interagency negotiation and approval processes.
  • Ohio DOT's "Pooled" Stream Restoration Areas — Primarily driven by water quality and antidegradation requirements, Ohio DOT (ODOT) has been performing compensatory mitigation for impacts to streams since 1998. ODOT's programmatic approach has included several large "pooled" stream mitigation areas created to address impaired waters and high-quality resources in need of protection, which were identified by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. ODOT has undertaken the restoration of more than 100,000 linear feet of stream in the past 2 1/2 years, along with the preservation of another 116,000 linear feet of priority riparian corridors threatened by development or other concerns.

Developing and Funding Stream Restoration: Current and Pending Resources for DOTs

  • Statewide conservation organizations and agencies as well as watershed groups can help identify conservation priorities that DOTs can support in the context of programmatic approaches.
  • FHWA memoranda to the field, "Funding for Establishment of Wetland Mitigation Banks" dated October 24, 1994 and "Participation in Funding for Ecological Mitigation" dated July 25, 1995 established criteria for Federal-aid participation in costs to acquire, restore, establish, and sustain viable wetland mitigation projects, including ILF programs.
  • FHWA's Office of Natural Environment has issued a DVD entitled "Stream Restoration Case Studies: The Effect of Highways on Streams." The featured projects successfully protected stream habitats and natural characteristics by careful design and restoration of natural features in the stream channels that had to be relocated due to road construction. The DVD is available in limited supply. Contact Paul Garrett for more information at (303) 969-5772 x 332 or Paul.Garrett@fhwa.dot.gov.
  • FHWA is currently developing a stream restoration training course with the National Highway Institute that will emphasize techniques and stream analysis.
  • Two National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) research projects will also yield valuable resources for design and implementation of stream restoration projects.
    • NCHRP 24-19, a four-year effort culminating in a CD and on-line resource due in late 2004, will provide DOTs guidance and specifications on multiple aspects of more than 40 environmentally sensitive techniques for streambank erosion control and channel restoration.
    • NCHRP 25-25(08) will develop protocols for the collection and analysis of performance data that would show the effectiveness of stream restoration in removing pollutant loads and improving ecological benefits. Due in 2005.
    • NCHRP 25-25(04) will link DOT practitioners to a variety of environmental stewardship practices in construction and maintenance, including those for effective implementation of stream restoration practices. Due late 2004.



Contact Information

Paul Garrett
FHWA Office of Natural Environment
555 Zang Street, Room 400
Lakewood, CO 80228
Phone: (303) 969-5772 x 332
Email: Paul.Garrett@fhwa.dot.gov


Look What's New!

  • NHI will be offering two NEPA classes this summer. Course #142005: NEPA and the Transportation Decision Making Process will be held in both Anchorage, AK and Baton Rouge, LA on August 31 - September 2. Visit http://www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov for more information.
  • The TRB Joint Summer Meeting of the Planning, Economics, Environmental, Finance, Freight, and Management Committees will be held July 25-27, 2004 in Park City, Utah. Visit http://gulliver.trb.org/ for more information.


"Successes in Stewardship" is a Federal Highway Administration newsletter highlighting current environmental streamlining practices from around the country. To subscribe, call (617) 494-6352 or email esnewsletter@volpe.dot.gov.

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