Compendium Vol. 2 No. 2: Restoration in action

Compendium Volume 2 Number 2 January 2019 r.1

We know how to enhance resilience to extreme weather where we live and work. Communities throughout the world are utilizing these approaches, and here we highlight several initiatives in a variety of habitats to illustrate potential paths forward. More information is included just below each project description. Following this section is a collection of summaries of scientific articles that provide evidence for eco-restoration to enhance resilience to a chaotic climate.

Sponge cities, China

“In the past, humans have taken the land away from the water; now we need to give the land back.” – Professor Hui Li [Guardian 2017]

Faced with severe flooding in many cities across China, such as a major 2012 Beijing flood, the Chinese government announced the Sponge Cities Initiative in 2014 as a remedy. The national government identified 16 cities as pilot sites, soon adding another 14 cities, including Beijing. The sponge city concept represents a paradigm shift in flood management away from impervious surfaces and chutes meant to swiftly drain a city after a storm. By contrast, a sponge city aims to manage stormwaters by vastly increasing the amount of soft, permeable surfaces that can absorb water where it falls, filter it, and store it in vegetation, ponds and aquifers.

A sponge city aims to manage stormwaters by vastly increasing the amount of soft, permeable surfaces that can absorb water where it falls, filter it, and store it in vegetation, ponds and aquifers.

According to the “Guideline of Sponge City Construction”, the target of the approach is to increase the area of urban land able to absorb surface water discharges by approximately 20%, and to retain or reuse approximately 70% of urban stormwater by 2020; and further reuse up to 80% of stormwater by 2030s. This means that the ideology of the Sponge City concept is not only addressing urban flood risk, but also taking a proactive approach to collection, purification and reuse of urban stormwater in Chinese cities to address future climatic extremes (floods and droughts) [Chan 2018: 3-4].

One of China’s new sponge cities, the Lingang/Nanhui district of Shanghai, is buildIng streets with permeable pavement, which allows water to percolate into the ground beneath, and planting rain gardens between lanes of traffic as well as some 400,000 square meters of rooftop gardens. In another city, the 84-acre Qunli Stormwater Park consists of a wetland surrounded by newly constructed filtering ponds that collect and filter the city’s stormwater runoff before slowly releasing it into the wetland, which in turn recharges groundwater. Earthen mounds are planted in cottonwood trees, and a system of elevated pathways through the park allows people to enjoy the space.

Inspiration for Qunli Stormwater Park and several other sponge city landscape design features comes from the ancient water management practices of Chinese peasants. According to landscape architect and sponge city advocate Yu Kongjian, peasants constructed simple terraces in combination with ponds to regulate flood and drought. “On sloping ground in monsoon regions these water catchments are critical,” Yu explains in an essay explaining the sponge city concept [Yu 2017: 29]. “Peasants also employed crop rotation to maximize yield, beautifully sustaining humanity for thousands of years” [Yu 2017: 29]. He continues :

Ironically, these centuries-old productive landscapes have given way to urbanization. Fine terraces are leveled into … planes called developable land; small ponds are drained and replaced with underground drainage systems; ponds and dikes give way to mechanical farming. The centuries-old ecosystem balance is broken, leading to flood, drought and habitat loss. Grey infrastructure haunts Chinese cities, while high maintenance landscapes with ornamental planting make broad scale landscape change unaffordable. [Yu 2017: 29]

China’s ‘sponge cities’ are turning streets green to combat flooding:

“Sponge City” in China: a breakthrough of planning and flood risk management in the urban context, Land Use Policy:

Yu, Kongjian, 2017, Sponge cities: rediscovering the wisdom of the peasant, Landscapes/Paysages Spring/Printemps 2017,  

Community-based watershed stewardship programs, USA

From California to Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington DC, people are coming together in their communities to learn what river their watershed drains into, how urban stormwater management has impaired that river, and how to restore river-floodplain ecosystems through a grassroots approach.

A watershed is an area of land over which any rain that falls drains into the same river or water body. For example, all waters falling onto the eastern half of Washington DC flows into the notoriously polluted Anacostia River, while the western half of the nation’s capital drains into the Potomac River. Thus, the city is split into two watersheds.

The Anacostia River was once surrounded by forests, meadows and wetlands, which absorbed, filtered and slowed water on its way downhill to the river. Over time, urban development and industrial processes paved over these natural sponges. The area of tidal wetlands surrounding the Anacostia has shrunk from 2,500 acres in the 1800s to 150 acres today.  

Today’s stormwater catchment made up of asphalt streets, parking lots and rooftops leaves water nowhere to go but into storm gutters, gushing out to the river, sometimes flooding over its banks. Furthermore, in many of the older parts of Washington, DC, the infrastructure uses CSOs (“combined sewer overflow”) — where storm drains share pipes with the sewer system — and therefore the stormwater exacerbates water treatment issues. There is thus an added incentive to reduce stormwater runoff.

The Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), a D.C. non-profit with a mission to make the river “fishable and swimmable by 2025,” engages school children and other community members in wetland restoration along the river. In addition, as in several other communities around the country, AWS partners with the DC Dept of Environment to train community members to be ambassadors for the river. Over the course of a several-week training program, Watershed Stewards learn how individual houses and buildings contribute to the problem with impervious surfaces and gutter downspouts directing rain water directly into storm sewers. Then they learn about absorptive green rooftops, and the possibility of redirecting water from a downspout to a rain garden or a deep-rooted perennial bed, where the water can percolate into healthy spongy soil, ultimately recharging groundwater.

Primed with knowledge, enthusiasm, and the camaraderie of fellow stewards, participants are expected to implement a project of their own, to teach their neighbors what they’ve learned, and to volunteer in related community projects focusing on watershed restoration. In Minnesota, watershed steward projects redirect rainfall from gutters into gardens, where it can hydrate plants and recharge groundwater, at a rate of more than 1 million gallons per year. According to the program website, this outcome is due to the efforts initiated in 2013 which now include 141 stewards working in partnership with seven watershed districts and one municipality. An Anne Arundel, Maryland, program started in 2009 boasts having planted nearly 100,000 native plants, trees and shrubs, led by some 200 stewards in 100 communities engaging 134,000 of their neighbors in watershed restoration efforts.

Minnesota :

Washington DC :

Maryland :, 

Pennsylvania :


Beavers for flood reduction, United Kingdom

To reduce the severity of flooding in Lydbrook, Gloucestershire, England, where a 2012 flood did extensive damage, the UK Ministry of Environment released a family of beavers upstream of the village in a 6.5 ha enclosure in a publicly-owned forest. Scientists who have studied the stream believe the beaver dams could hold back some 6,000 cubic meters of water, which might otherwise gush into the village during a heavy storm. If successful, this landfill-tax-funded project is intended to be replicated elsewhere in the UK. Beavers have already been successfully reintroduced elsewhere in England and Scotland, resulting in the Scottish government listing beavers as a protected native species.

Beavers released in Forest of Dean to prevent flooding: 

Meet the latest recruit to the UK flood defence team: the beaver:

Beavers could be reintroduced to Wales after centuries absence: 

Low-tech stream repair for drought resilience: western USA

As the hydrological benefits that beaver dams bring to streams and surrounding landscapes becomes better known, ranchers, wildlife managers and researchers are increasingly working together to repair streams by building Beaver Dam Analogs (BDAs). This method is attractive to ranchers searching for ways to manage drought and to irrigate their pastures reliably. In the spring, snowmelt or heavy rainfall can happen quickly, leaving parched landscapes where it’s needed as it rushes downstream into a river and out of sight. Beaver dams slow water down.  The human-made BDAs create pools and rehydrate the landscape, ultimately attracting beavers to return, recolonize the streams, and keep the dams in good repair.

“The longer that we can keep that [water] on the landscape, we increase the productivity of those plants. And [that] ultimately leads to more drought resilience, right? These sponges fill up with water. It’s like putting money in the piggy bank for those lean times,” said Jeremy Maestas, an ecologist with the department of agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. As part of the Sage Grouse Initiative to repair sagebrush habitat, NRCS hosts training workshops throughout the region from Oregon to Montana to Utah on how build the small, porous, beaver-inspired dams in streams.

Beavers: an unlikely solution to Western drought: 

SGI workshop explores ‘cheap and cheerful’ riparian restoration to benefit wildlife and ranchers: 

Riparian restoration, California

The arid San Joaquin Valley of California is intensively farmed and dependent on irrigation. The San Joaquin River, once teeming with migrating fish and other wildlife, is surrounded by farmland and has become warm, muddy, and nearly devoid of aquatic life. In 2012 and 2014, River Partners, a California non-profit dedicated to restoring riparian habitat and river connectivity, partnered with state and federal agencies to buy 2,100 acres of farmland adjacent to the river. The farmers were ready to let the land go because of its proneness to flooding.

To reconnect and restore the floodplain, Dos Rios project workers are breaching berms and levees and planting native trees and shrubs tolerant of ephemeral flooding. This is one of several similar projects managed by River Partners, as well as others led by the state. Further funding for such floodplain restoration efforts is likely to continue given that California voters have passed Proposition 68 or “California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access For All Act of 2018.” This legislation to invest $4 billion in park and ecosystem conservation and restoration and climate resiliency includes $300 million for floodplain projects in the Central Valley.

Dos Rios Ranch Preserve: California’s largest floodplain restoration project:

California is preparing for extreme weather. It’s time to plant some trees:

Saltwater marsh restoration, Canada

The Atlantic coast of Canada has started seeing damages related to sea-level rise and storm surges, including flooding, landslides, and shoreline recession. Some communities fear dikes will fail. As a result, people are looking to restoration of native coastal ecosystems as a defense against rising waters. When flooded, coastal marshes often receive large sediment loads that raise their elevation, potentially keeping pace with higher ocean levels. A recent study [Schuerch 2018] showed that making space for inland marsh migration can allow marshes even to thrive in the face of sea-level rise, which is expected to be 1 to 2 feet by 2100 on much of the Canadian Atlantic coast.

In 2010, the Canadian government funded a project in the Bay of Fundy on the Atlantic Coast to restore 16 hectares of saltmarsh land, long ago dried for agriculture, back to its original marshy state. Ducks Unlimited Canada, who led the project, initiated the restoration process by breaching a 150 year-old dike to allow the tide to flow back onto the land. The purpose of this project was to preserve agricultural land further inland from the eroding coastline and rising seas, so a new dike was built just behind the restored marsh.[5]

As noted, marshes can adapt to sea level rise by accumulating sediment. These sediment deposits also enable marshes to quickly bury (or sequester) large amounts of carbon. During the six years after the restoration process began, annual carbon accumulation at the site averaged 13.29 Mg/ha [~5.5 t/ac], mainly due to the sediment deposit that would otherwise likely have mineralized and been released as CO2.

If not deposited in marshes, the organic C in the suspended sediments in the upper Bay of Fundy is likely to be deposited in nearby mudflats. Unlike salt marshes, which tend to be stable or accreting, mudflats are highly dynamic systems subject to frequent erosion events, with scouring to depths of 20 cm or more. … Sediment and associated organic C is also more likely to be preserved in marshes compared with mudflats due to the stabilization effect of macrophyte roots and the associated erosion protection [Wollenburg 2018: 10].

In addition to quickly burying large amounts of carbon, the restored marsh showed signs of success when vegetation (cordgrass) re-established itself in 2012. By 2016, although patches of bare mud were still present, cordgrass was covering most of the marsh area.

This success story is likely to be repeated several times over since the Canadian government announced $75 million for coastal restoration as part of a $1.5 billion Coastal Protection Plan. This includes a project to restore another 75 hectares of salt marshes in the same Bay of Fundy. The coastal restoration fund prioritizes coastal watersheds, estuaries, saltgrass marshes, eel-bed marshes, and migratory corridors for salmon and other species.

Salt marsh restoration project launched:

Coastal restoration fund backgrounder: East Coast salt marshes to be restored to battle effects of climate change:

Future response of global coastal wetlands to sea-level rise:

Rapid carbon accumulation following managed realignment on the Bay of Fundy:

Holistic planned grazing for drought relief, Zimbabwe

“You must have had a lot more rain because how else can water appear where it has not existed before?” asked Zimbabwe Minister of Water Development Sam Nkomo when he saw a clear water-lily-covered pool that had only come to exist in the upper river catchment two years prior [Savory 2009].

Two herders and their employer Allan Savory explained that “the water had come and stayed through the dry season higher up in the river system than it had ever been known [to] before” [Savory 2009]. But this was not due to more rain than usual. Rather, it was because the ranch had increased its cattle and goat numbers 400% and kept them in one herd, which they constantly moved to fresh grazing land according to the needs of the grasses and plants. Managing grazing this way meant the vegetation got quick, strong periodic treatments of trampling, urine and manure, following which it had sufficient time to recover and regrow. This stimulated thicker vegetation cover and better water absorption into the soil, thus increasing groundwater and streamflow.

Faced with drying wells and silt-filled dams nationwide, Minister Nkomo responded positively to his discovery of Savory’s “holistic planned grazing” for restoring rivers and biodiversity and combating drought. In 2009 when this article was published, plans were underway to replicate this grazing management approach in other Zimbabwe watersheds.

Dimbangombe: Success in Africa, stories and photos by Allan Savory: 

Regreening the Tigray region, Ethiopia

More than 224,000 ha of drylands in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia that had previously succumbed to devastating cycles of drought and flood have been restored. As a result, the hillsides are green again, previously dry wells are recharged, and fruit trees now grow in the valleys. To remedy the problem of severe land degradation, locals throughout the region started in the 1990s to dig small pits and built terraces and bunds (small walls) to capture rainfall and keep it from running off slopes, while also planting millions of tree and bush seedlings. In addition, tree cutting and livestock grazing[6] were banned from degraded lands to allow natural regeneration of vegetation.

Regreening program to restore land across one sixth of Ethiopia: 

Loess Plateau Rehabilitation Project, China

China’s Loess Plateau, roughly the size of France, lies between Tibet and Beijing just south of Mongolia, and is traversed by the Yellow River. Once covered in forest and grassland and the center of Chinese power and wealth, this area eventually became severely degraded by agriculture and unmanaged grazing. The fragile loess soils, composed of glacially deposited fine sediments, were prone to serious erosion when denuded of vegetation. By the 20th Century, the Loess Plateau’s barren landscape was regularly ravaged by dust storms and cycles of flooding, drought and famine. When rain fell, it left the land as quickly as it had come. Some 95% of rainfall simply washed off into gullies, flooding the river and choking it with sediment from extreme erosion.

In the mid-1990s, the Loess Watershed Rehabilitation Project began. The Chinese government working with the World Bank assembled a team of hydrologists, agronomists, and soil and forest specialists to evaluate the problem and what it would take to regreen the region. Apparently engaging local people every step of the way, they identified ecologically destabilizing land management practices, established land management policies (banning agriculture on steep slopes, tree cutting and unmanaged grazing), and developed implementation strategies. Each village was asked to work together to determine how land would be divided fairly among households, each of which received a long-term land use contract for a particular parcel for which they were responsible. Local people were hired to implement ecosystem restoration measures, such as terracing, building small earthen dams to capture rainfall, and planting vegetation. The results have been positive overall, with vegetation and biodiversity returning to a previously desert-like landscape.

Lessons of the Loess Plateau longer version, written and edited by John D. Liu: 

Culture revival of livestock grazing for wildfire management, California

An old-school Italian festival celebrating the work of grazing animals and their faithful herders has taken root in Petaluma, CA. “Transhumance” is the act of moving grazing animals from one grassy site to another. The festival bearing this name takes place in the city or town centers through which the animals traverse en route to fresh paddocks. People gather there to celebrate the cultural tradition of livestock grazing, to trade, and to make merry.

A Petaluma transhumance festival was begun for practical purposes. Sweetgrass Grazing, a local contract grazing business whose client list has expanded in the wake of the recent California wildfires, needed a practical way to move livestock from one client’s site to another. A well-recognized approach for controlling the severity of wildfires is fuel reduction by means of removing vegetation. Yet, in contrast to mechanical or herbicide removal, grazing livestock herds remove vegetation in a way that builds the soil and creates conditions for healthier compositions of grassland species. Furthermore, nimble sheep, goats and herders can also access higher elevations that are inaccessible to machines.

In addition to conditioning townspeople to the idea of herding livestock through town, the festival seeks to sensitize the community at large to the wellbeing of surrounding landscape and possibilities for taking care of that land.

Transhumance: a revival of grassland culture: 

Transhumance festival:

Diverse cover crops and livestock for drought relief, Texas

The 2011 drought in Texas was the worst in recorded history and it lasted until 2015. The ground was so dry that Jonathan Cobb, a 4th generation farmer in Blackland Prairie of central Texas, couldn’t even get crops planted. His 2,500-acre conventional row crop operation was already struggling financially through a treadmill of increasingly more inputs and long hours with little or no yield improvement. So he made the hard decision to leave farming and move to the city.

But before he left, he attended a workshop with renowned soil scientist Ray Archuleta, who focused Jonathan’s attention for the first time on soil health. Archuleta demonstrated the water-holding capacity of healthy, biologically active aggregated soils compared to a typical compacted soil that crumbled and eroded when water was poured on it. This demonstration opened Cobb’s mind to a whole new way of approaching agriculture. It gave him hope that farming even through extreme drought was possible.

There was hope that nature actually did exist on its own before man started cultivating it … things that seem obvious, like a forest ecology that nobody fertilizes a forest … of course it works, it can be very abundant. And so there was a hope in that message, but there was still this big chasm to cross between how do we get there because nobody is doing it here [NRCS 2015: 5:20min].

Jonathan and his wife Kaylyn crossed that chasm by downsizing the farm to 450 acres, getting rid of the tillage equipment, learning about Holistic Management grazing, and replacing row crops with cover crops and multi-species grazing systems, including beef, lamb, pork and poultry. Now their focus is on building soil health, and they have lush pastures to show for it. Texas still gets hot, but cover crops cool down the soil:

I’ve measured [the hot days] since I’ve gotten into soil health, and on a 103-degree day of ambient temperature, the surface of a bare Blackland soil gets to 155 degrees. You could cook a steak to a safe level. Obviously your soil bacteria are not going to be living at that stage, not the ones you want anyway. Where we had cover residue from no-till and cover crops, my soil surface was 77 degrees on the same day less than a mile away. It’s a drastic change in the environment that you’re creating out there [Acres USA 2015].

On a 103-degree day of ambient temperature, the surface of a bare Blackland soil gets to 155 degrees. You could cook a steak to a safe level. Obviously your soil bacteria are not going to be living at that stage, not the ones you want anyway. Where we had cover residue from no-till and cover crops, my soil surface was 77 degrees on the same day less than a mile away. – Johnathan Cobb [Acres USA 2015]

They direct-market their products online and deliver it to designated pick-up locations in the area. And they enjoy what they do: “If we can make a living and stay here then we couldn’t ask for anything more,” Jonathan says [Voth 2018].

Jonathan Cobb profile:

A farmer and a farm are saved by soil health:

Interview: Forging a better path – Texas Farmer Jonathan Cobb embraces shift from conventional to biological-based practices

Acres USA, 2015, Interview: Forging a better path - Texas Farmer Jonathan Cobb embraces shift from conventional to biological-based practices, February 2015,

Chan, Faith Ka Shun, James A. Griffiths & David Higgitt, et al., 2018, “Sponge City” in China: a breakthrough of planning and flood risk management in the urban context, Land Use Policy,  

Savory, Allan, 2009, Dimbangombe: Success in Africa. Story and photos by Allan Savory, Range Magazine, Fall 2009,

Schuerch, Mark,  Tom Spencer, Stijn Temmerman, et al., 2018, Future response of global coastal wetlands to sea-level rise, Nature 561,

Swain, Daniel L., Baird Langenbrunner, J. David Neelin & Alex Hall, 2018, Increasing precipitation volatility in twenty-first century California, Nature Climate Change,

Voth, Cathy, 2018, A farmer and a farm are saved by soil health, On Pasture, retrieved Jan. 22, 2019: 

Yu, Kongjian, 2017, Sponge cities: rediscovering the wisdom of the peasant, Landscapes/Paysages Spring/Printemps 2017,  

[5] A similar project is being undertaken in Northern California: “HUMBOLDT BAY NWR: Living Coastline Project Will Restore Tidal Salt Marsh at Humboldt Bay” -

[6] Livestock grazing is known to cause land degradation as it did in this Ethiopia case, or regeneration, as demonstrated in the previous article on Zimbabwe. The different outcomes depend on how the grazing is managed. However, the problem of degradation from unmanaged livestock grazing is often better recognized than is the potential for adaptively managed grazing to be part of the solution.

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 2 Number 2 January 2019 r.1