Did this Thing Come with Instructions? Exploring Engineering Overkill in Restoration
Session Coordinators: Eric Ginney, ESA, and Brian Cluer Ph.D., NMFS
In recent years a paradigm shift in restoration has occurred where embracing natural processes to create and sustain habitat over time has started to replace the immediacy of habitat construction, and for good reason. There is a need to increase the pace and scale of restoration to recover salmonoids. Process based restoration and the need to increase the pace and scale is now well-established in the theoretical and applied sciences underpinning habitat restoration. Society is demanding a faster pace to salmonid habitat restoration to support recovery, as evidenced by the 100-year flood of restoration funding that is upon us. Additionally, with several decades of habitat restoration in the rearview mirror, the inventory of “low-hanging-fruit” projects (small, straight-forward, low-cost projects that deliver large benefits) is declining. Some projects are getting bigger, more expensive, and taking longer. As practitioners, we find ourselves seeking to do more, do it faster, and because we want to improve, we want to become even more effective. How will we efficiently design and deliver these projects faster, and how will a relatively finite number of regulators (reviewers) efficiently and effectively review even more projects?
As the habitat restoration industry matures, and considering the question above, there are characteristics and tendencies of the restoration design process that can be observed and further explored. One such characteristic is that of balancing competing interests and the tensions inside the design process that stem from efforts to strike that balance. Oftentimes (but not always) this is a healthy tension in the design process that receives attention, curiosity, and careful consideration: one example is dynamism versus predictability and certainty in outcomes; another is the long-term ecosystem uplift balanced against short-term impacts. But these tensions don’t just play out in the abstract mind of a fisheries biologist, engineer, or geomorphologist—they play out within design teams and with downstream landowners, public works officials, agency regulators, and citizen advocates—to name but a few. The fear of lawsuits, of doing harm, and failing (even the perception of failure!), is very real and as the most powerful human emotion, fear can drive us toward increased design efforts to increase certainty and immediacy through reducing risks of all sorts (from ecological to reputational). The tendency to increase control and certainty in a design can yield beneficial outcomes; however, some observations suggest that risk aversion can drive up costs, reduce progress, limit positive outcomes and sustainability, and even reduce collaboration.
Application of engineering principles to the restoration design process, while bringing benefits in terms of professional accountability and rigorous analysis, has often increased the degree of risk aversion associated with stream restoration projects. The risks being averted include things such as the risk of a contractor leveraging less-developed drawings to force contract change orders or the risk that a regulator will not have certainty of the habitat outcome (or impact avoidance) without greater detail, more effort in a design, or even an additional design phase. Enter, fear of the unknown or fear of failure.
The problem with risk aversion is that it can lead to emphasizing stability over dynamic processes, “more effort” over good enough, even when the true risks (consequences of something bad happening) are low or tolerable. To constrain risk, we tend to overdesign and increase the engineering factor of safety. Risk reduction can compound as project development proceeds from concept to design, review, and approval. At each step, fear of the unknown or fear of failure may push the process and/or the design out of balance, further from collaboration and a shared sense of success or failure. Is all of that just inherent? Can we discuss this, consider everyone’s perspectives, and find better ways to strike the balance?
This session will examine these factors, and others, and consider approaches to address these challenges including examples of ways to design and construct projects not commonly undertaken today. Session attendees will be better-informed across a wide variety of perspectives and, optimally, will support them in making the call for a broader dialogue in the restoration engineering practitioner community on this subject.
Realizing that the subject of engineering in the design process is complex, sensitive, holds many questions, and can go in many directions in any one conversation amongst practitioners, we have organized this session to examine two basic questions:
How will we efficiently design and deliver larger and less certain projects faster, and how will a relatively finite number of regulators (reviewers) efficiently and effectively review even more projects?
How much design detail is necessary?
This is a sensitive topic, and we realize that. We also realize this is a broad topic, that context (such as risk) matters, and that one conference session is not adequate to discuss the breadth and nuance. However, we aim to get the conversation started and hope to create a thoughtful and reflective dialog that may, over time, result in some guidance on these basic questions. Our goal is a safe venue for everyone who participates. Therefore, we request that all participants be courteous, thoughtful, and professional. Please treat this session as a starting point for work-in-progress—intellectual work that we all need to engage in.
Reflections of A Grumpy Old Engineer on the Design Process, Rachel Shea, PE, Michael Love & Associates, Inc
Programmatic, Pragmatic, and Legal Aspects of Engineering and Geologic Involvement in Restoration, Jon Mann, PE, California Department of Fish and Wildlife
It's All Relative - Why Context is Important in Ecosystem Restoration, Jeff Sanchez, PG, PH, California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Toward a Next Generation of Project Planning, Design, and Implementation, Darren Mierau – California Trout
Considering Construction at the Inception, Mark Cederborg, Outset Advisors
Employing Non-Engineered Techniques to Allow Fish Passage in Heavily Disturbed, Industrially Logged Landscapes, Thomas Leroy, Pacific Watershed Associates