Is Information Enough? The Effects of Watershed Approaches and Planning on Targeting Ecosystem Restoration Sites
Since 1996, the watershed approach (i.e., the inclusive use of watershed information) has been a hallmark concept in ecosystem restoration site location. In 2008, federal regulators required use of the watershed approach in siting compensatory mitigation for aquatic impacts regulated under the U.S. Clean Water Act. However, regulations fell short of requiring full watershed plans, which could have required stakeholder involvement and inter-institutional coordination. Little work has evaluated how the watershed approach or planning position mitigation sites in the landscape. Has the watershed approach or watershed planning been successful in targeting restoration sites where they are needed? The North Carolina Division of Mitigation Services (DMS; formerly the NC Ecosystem Enhancement Program), a state agency, has implemented the watershed approach and extensive watershed planning to focus restoration investments. Through a multi-step planning program, the DMS employs a watershed approach to gauge the need of 12-digit watersheds for restoration. In some cases, an intensive local watershed planning process follows this targeting effort. We tested the effect of the program’s watershed targeting approach (n = 710) and local watershed planning efforts (n = 147) on increasing the frequency of wetland and stream mitigation projects (n = 480) in each of the state’s 1741 12-digit watersheds (1998–2012). We find that while the watershed approach is successful at guiding restoration to targeted watersheds over space and time, the impacts of watershed planning are more nebulous, with important but weaker panel-effects. Our findings highlight the importance of plan quality and data management in using a watershed approach to target restoration sites effectively.