Ecosystem Restoration and Water Management

– Curated by Jennifer Cribbs (

Note from the Curator:

Restoration implies returning to a prior state. A broken cup carefully glued, might appear nearly as whole as the original, but will always differ from the original. 

Ecosystem restoration attempts to return an evolving web of interconnected species and physical processes to a prior state. This endeavor raises complex questions: what prior state should be the restoration target? How do ecosystem needs and human values interact in determining the restoration goal? Is it most important to restore physical processes (process-based restoration) or populations of critical species (species-based restoration)? The following collection of art explores these questions and the connections between restoration and water management. 

The Voyage of Life (Thomas Cole 1842) source This quadriptych illustrates the stages of human life from childhood to youth to adulthood, and finally old age. The river symbolizes the passage of time and the uniqueness of every moment. As with human lives, it is impossible to restore a river to a previous point in time. However, process based restoration, as described by Wohl et al. (2015), focuses on restoring essential functions of the river rather than restoring to conditions at a previous point in time.  –Angelica Ortiz 

The Oxbow (Thomas Cole 1836)source Thomas Cole’s paintings epitomize the romanticism of the Hudson River School which reflects the desire to restore a different relationship between nature and society. Similarly, river restoration raises questions about what the relationship between nature and society should be. In The Oxbow, the landscape predominantly shows signs of humans extracting resources from nature. Whether that is the right relationship between nature and society remains an open question.    –Abbey Hill

Kintsugi tea bowl (17th Century Japan, Edo period, currently at Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art) – source Kintsugi, meaning “golden joinery,” is a Japanese method of repairing broken ceramics. The technique uses lacquer and powdered gold or silver to emphasize, rather than hide, the cracks. Kintsugi shows that the object may never be wholly restored, but it can be beautiful and useful. Similarly, process-based restoration projects intend to restore the form and function of a river rather than return the system to an unimpacted or past state (Wohl et al., 2015). Rivers that are “broken” (i.e., impaired water quality, biodiversity loss) will not be made whole by restoration projects, but they will gain new form, function, and value for people and the environment.  –Eleanor Fadely

Glen Canyon Dam (Normal Rockwell 1969) – source The Navajo family in the foreground emphasizes the costs of Glen Canyon Dam–the people displaced, the ecosystems drowned, the river’s natural path arrested.  The dam dramatically influences flow regimes in the Grand Canyon, transforming the Colorado River below the dam from high sediment, high flood water, with variable temperatures to much lower sediment, smaller managed floods, and consistent cooler temperatures (Schmidt et al., 1998).  Options for managing the river range from traditional management (business as usual) to full scale restoration (removal of all dams) as well as options in between.  Schmidt et al. (1998) explores the benefits and drawbacks of these options, recognizing that it is impossible to turn back the clock in any ecosystem. –Jenny Cribbs

Tanner Springs Park, Portland Oregon by Atelier Dreiseitl & Green Works (2005) source  Can decentralized water treatment and reuse systems integrate into communities in an invisible or even beautiful way? Tanner Springs Park combines landscape architecture and water treatment. This formerly culverted creek collects runoff from the surrounding city in its bioswale, filtering contaminants and slowing water flow. Tanner Springs Park exemplifies how decentralized treatment and reuse systems can work in tandem with centralized water systems, combining economical sanitation with functional beauty.  –Eleanor Fadely

Jenny Cribbs is a masters student in Environmental Policy and Management and an incoming PhD student in Ecology at the University of California at Davis. This post is a product of a pandemic, remote, discussion-based class on Art and Water Management in Winter, 2021. Contributing authors Eleanor Fadely, Abbey Hill, and Angelica Ortiz all participated in this class; Jay Lund served as faculty facilitator.

Further Readings

Schmidt, J., Webb, R., Valdez, R., Marzolf, G., & Stevens, L. (1998). Science and Values in River Restoration in the Grand Canyon. BioScience, 48(9), 735-747. doi:10.2307/1313336

Wohl, E., Lane, S. N., & Wilcox, A. C. (2015), The science and practice of river restoration, Water Resources, 51, 5974–5997. doi:10.1002/2014WR016874.

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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1 Response to Ecosystem Restoration and Water Management

  1. Jerry Gilbert says:

    Restoration concepts are at the center of California’s effort to wisely manage state waters particularly during times of drought. By shedding a new light on how it is defined has been a valuable contribution to the much debated topic.

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