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The Soul of a River

By Hal Hagen 
10 Years AgoBack in October 2001, Hal Hagen wrote “The Soul of the River” about his passion for restoring damaged or compromised stretches of wild water.  His insights from back then ring true, perhaps with even greater urgency, 10 years later:
 
‘At the most basic level, all rivers do is
direct a volume of water down a grade of some kind, creating a tremendous amount of energy in the process.  Where that volume of water is great enough and swift enough, humankind has learned to turn this abundance of energy into hydroelectric power.  Nature also uses that energy to its own purposes – and in awe-inspiring ways, as a glance at the sculptural qualities of a place like the Grand Canyon demonstrates or as any trout-fishing enthusiast can tell you.’ 
 
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‘The repair and rehabilitation of streams encompasses many specific tasks, but the work generally can be broken down into two broad categories:  First, we create habitats where indigenous species of aquatic life can flourish.  Second, we make the work look “natural,” both in the water and beyond.’ 
 
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‘If there is one underlying rule it is that form almost always follows function:  A boulder habitat structure in a stream is functional by providing protected habitats for trout, but the form or aesthetic appeal is directly related to what it does.  It creates a diversity of stream velocities or breaks up the monotonous nature of a stream.’
 
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‘[W]e’ll spend time on site studying the stream and the surrounding environment.  We’ll look at the fall of the stream in terms of drop versus distance; we’ll quantify width and depth and flow rates; we’ll track existing fish populations, nutrient levels and any man-made structures that may be influencing the health of the stream.  All these components are examined over time and taken into careful consideration as we develop our restoration strategy.’ 
 
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‘[W]e can grade a portion of the stream- or riverbank to slow down or speed up the flow.  This can involve widening the streambed in places – or changing its depth.  On some projects, we’ll look for ways that we can redirect the flow by adding wooded material such as a “fallen” log, or enhancing or reducing rock structures.  In many cases, these structures again serve the purposes of managing rate of flow, providing locations where nutrients can accumulate and enhancing the aesthetics.’ 
 
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‘[E]ven when we’re working with a limited amount of energy in terms of water flow, we can create wonderful, naturalistic resources by working with nature.  This sense of balance and harmony with natural processes is something that I believe is missing in many man-made projects.  There’s no reason why this gap should exist.  Rivers and streams are dynamic, powerful engines of creative force:  In learning how to harness that energy and direct it toward a specific result, we unlock natural beauty instead of losing ourselves in the struggle to replicate it!’ 
 
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‘When it comes to landscaping riverbanks, most of our work is aimed at re-vegetation.  We use only indigenous plants and often end up removing certain plants that are intruding on more natural vegetation.  For the most part, however, our goal is to leave the edges alone.’  
 
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‘That’s not to say that our general approach is minimalist or small scale.  In some cases, we may end up adding 40 or 50 semi loads of rock to an area – but in ways that augment what nature is doing with the energy in the stream or river.  Understanding where the balances are between taking action and leaving well enough alone is one of the sublime challenges of this type of work.’ 
 
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‘No matter the type of project, I believe it’s critical not only to study the aesthetic beauty of nature in attempting to mimic it, but to also gain a clear understanding of the processes that support life within a body of water.  Doing so will better enable you to create truly natural streams that will remain healthy and beautiful over the long haul.’ 
 
What do you think about Hal Hagen’s approach?  Do you believe that his philosophy of achieving a balance between taking action and leaving well enough alone has more general application in other forms of watershaping?  To share your thoughts, please comment below.

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