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Compromised Rivers: Understanding Historical Human Impacts on Rivers in the Context of Restoration

Ellen Wohl, Colorado State University

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Abstract

A river that preserves a simplified and attractive form may nevertheless have lost function. Loss of function in these rivers can occur because hydrologic and geomorphic processes no longer create and maintain the habitat and natural disturbance regimes necessary for ecosystem integrity. Recognition of compromised river function is particularly important in the context of river restoration, in which the public perception of a riverís condition often drives the decision to undertake restoration as well as the decision about what type of restoration should be attempted. Determining the degree to which a river has been altered from its reference condition requires a knowledge of historical land use and the associated effects on rivers. Rivers of the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains in the United States are used to illustrate how historical land uses such as beaver trapping, placer mining, tie drives, flow regulation, and the construction of transportation corridors continue to affect contemporary river characteristics. Ignorance of regional land use and river history can lead to restoration that sets unrealistic goals because it is based on incorrect assumptions about a riverís reference condition or about the influence of persistent land-use effects.

Key words

river restoration; Colorado Front Range; historical land use
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087