Channel reconfiguration is one of the most common and costly stream restoration techniques, though its effectiveness is frequently questioned. Project monitoring often tracks changes in macroinvertebrate communities and other responses for a 5-year period. However, channel reconfiguration is a documented disturbance to stream ecosystems, suggesting that this form of restoration initiates succession over longer time frames than monitoring typically captures. To address the role of succession in stream ecosystem recovery, we developed the Phased Recovery Framework (PRF) which proposes benchmarks represented by predictable habitat structure and community composition based on project age. The PRF was tested across nine stream restoration projects in western Montana, ranging in age from 1 to 18 years, each paired with an established reference system. We tested for differences in channel form, habitat character, and macroinvertebrate community composition. While restoration established desired channel form, most biotic variables had not recovered to reference condition even for the oldest projects. Across all sites, phases of the PRF were poor predictors of response. However, analyzing responses to reconfiguration independently for sites in watersheds with unimpaired water quality versus those experiencing excessive nutrient enrichment (i.e. impaired sites) indicated that biological variables converged on reference conditions at unimpaired sites, but diverged across impaired reaches. These large-scale anthropogenic influences may play a stronger role in recovery than do changes to channel form and need to be incorporated into project design and success criteria. Assessment of the PRF suggests that short-term monitoring is not likely to produce reliable indicators of effectiveness without incorporating locally appropriate change associated with watershed impairment and successional progression.
- stream restoration