Last updated - 2/5/05

Once There Were Beavers: 

A Stream Flow Restoration Project for the Potomac Headwaters.


A feature article on this project from the March 2004 Cacapon newsletter can be read here.

2007 VA/WV Water Research Symposium paper is here.


On this page:




Project Description




Partners and Funding


Site Selection


Current Status


Protocols and Data


Structure Slide Show 

View a slide show of the first 15 structures

What we're actually doing!

Protocols and Data

Background - When we imagine the eastern-American landscape of 200-300 years ago, most people picture a landscape of nearly continuous forests bisected by free flowing streams.  The reality was very different.  Before the fur trade decimated beaver populations in early colonial times, beavers were abundant on streams throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.  After beavers were extirpated from the Chesapeake basin, many perennial streams gradually became intermittent or ephemeral - possibly due to lowering of water tables as beaver dams disappeared.  Current research in the West affirms that the return of beavers can result in a return of perennial flows to headwater areas and a more natural stream flow regime.

The public’s (often) negative perception of beavers precludes us from importing beavers to restore the lost hydrologic functions.  However, researchers in the western US have developed low-cost methods to construct shallow beaver dam-like structures (BDS) to restore riparian areas and increase groundwater storage.  By retaining eroded material behind the structure, the BDSs reduce downstream sedimentation and augment alluvial water storage capacity as they mature.  Because they are modeled after small beaver dams, the structures represent an ecologically guided attempt to restore what was once a ubiquitous component of the ecosystem.  

Project description - Approximately 30 shallow, in-stream structures (click here to find out what we mean by structures) and associated monitoring equipment will be installed in two headwater watersheds, using a paired-watershed design.  Once suitable sites are selected, we will collect preliminary data on surface water flow and alluvial groundwater levels, install structures and, over time, assess the effectiveness of these structures in enhancing bank and alluvial water storage, on increasing surface flow in local streams during base flow, and reducing sedimentation.  Whether built by beavers or people, these structures will provide beneficial impacts for wildlife, water quality and quantity, and erosion control.  While such structures may reduce and delay peak stream velocity, these are not flood-control structures, nor are they dams in the traditional sense.  We propose to partially restore the natural hydrologic functions, flow regimes and ground water levels that likely existed prior to the colonial era extirpation of beavers.

A Technical Advisory Committee has been assembled to guide the process of selecting sites, designing structures and monitoring programs, and assessing results.  An Evaluation Committee consisting of the technical advisory committee and watershed stakeholders will be assembled to decide whether to continue and expand the process or terminate it based upon cultural acceptability (esthetics, cost, hunting, fishing, and recreation), likely impact on water resources in general, and potential for mitigating the impacts of groundwater use.  Back to top

Need - Fundamentally - "EVERY WATERSHED NEEDS WATER!"  Concerns over both quantity and quality of our surface and ground water resources are widespread in the United States.  In Hardy County, WV, an ongoing assessment of water resources finds that the poultry industry “may impart a significant burden” on the region’s groundwater resources.  Rapid development also puts pressure on groundwater resources.  There is also anecdotal concern in this area that “we are sucking the rivers dry” and recent experience indicates that new wells must be drilled 150-200 feet deeper to get the yields previously obtained from shallower wells. 

Regionally, because sufficient flow is an important component of a healthy river system and adequate surface and groundwater supplies are a prerequisite for sustainable human communities and healthy wildlife habitat, this project will support the Chesapeake Bay program’s mission to restore a system with healthy streams and rivers and strong local and regional economies.   Back to top 

Partners: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S.D.A. Forest Service, W.V. Division of Natural Resources, W.V. Conservation Agency, Potomac Valley Conservation District, W.V.U. Extension Service, Canaan Valley Institute

This project has been approved for funding by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s 2003 Chesapeake Bay Small Watershed Grants Program and has been conceptually reviewed by a number of environmental professionals.  The pilot project will begin in September 2003 and run through May 2005.   Back to top

Site selection.  The stream sites selected for this project needed to meet fairly rigid criteria.  


First, we wanted to work on first or second order streams, which are very common.  


Second, these small streams needed to have significant deposits of alluvial (floodplain) soils and shallow slopes.  In West Virginia, this combination is fairly uncommon, at least in the Potomac Headwaters area.  


Third, the selected sites couldn't have active large animal agriculture, the most common use for such lands.


Fourth, the streams on the selected sites couldn't run directly beside a road, or weave repeatedly back and forth across a road.  Roads are often built next to streams in these settings, further reducing the potential pool of sites.


Finally, sites with all of the above characteristics must also have landowners willing to allow us permission to conduct the experiments on their land.

We feel fortunate to have found two suitable experimental sites, and one mostly suitable control site. CI is very grateful to the three landowners for permission to use their land.

Experimental site 1 has two distinctly different regions - a upper forested section, and a lower open meadow.  To learn more, click here. Experimental Site 1 forested upland Experimental Site 1 lower meadow
Experimental Site 2 is an upland meadow, and has been enrolled in the USDA Conservation Reserve and Enhancement Program (CREP). Experimental Site 2 upper meadow
The control site has only a small forested section and is mostly grassed.  It was chosen for its proximity and similar topography to Experimental Site 1, and for presumed similar precipitation (which has, in fact, been borne out by preliminary data).  It also has "road issues."  No reasonably suitable control was found in proximity to Experimental site 2.  However, we are not dependant on the control for our analysis, as we also have a nested "upstream-downstream" design for each experimental site.     Control

Current Status.  The very wet fall in 2003 followed by early onset of a snowy and cold winter has delayed important elements of our project, particularly installation of the groundwater monitoring network.  As in all field studies, the weather rules and you have to adjust.  The groundwater measurement system was finally installed in May 2004.  Flow and rainfall data has been collected at Experimental Site 1 and the Control since late fall 2003 but, again, the very cold winter put a halt to that for several months as well; taking flow measurements in snow covered and frozen streams is problematic.  

Data collected for this project include flow, groundwater "level", stream height, precipitation, and water temperature.  Data analysis will be based on comparisons between sites, in particular, between control and experimental sites, and between upstream and downstream locations within the experimental study areas.  In order to assess change induced by installation of the structures, the period of baseline data collection requires documenting a number of hydrologic cycles running from wet to dry, and documenting conditions of flow during those times.  These conditions must be documented between experimental and control sites and, particularly, between upstream and downstream sites in the experimental streams.  The wet fall in 2003 never presented that opportunity, the winter conditions precluded it and, during spring 2003, every time we approach a fairly low flow condition we had another period of substantial precipitation (like April 12, 2004).  Finally, in August 2004 we had the low flow conditions that we needed, and the subject streams all became intermittent.  We were then fortunate in September to have a series of heavy rainfall events associated with hurricanes that were followed by fairly dry periods.  This allowed us to collect important baseline data, and to proceed with constructing structures.   

We selected the cross vane as the most suitable structure for our purpose, and have received permits from the US Army Corps of Engineers and the WV Public Lands Corporation, and permission to proceed from the WVDNR.  Fifteen structures were installed at Experimental Site 1-Meadow during October and November 2004.  Structures will be installed at Experimental Site 1-Forest and Experimental Site 2 as early as weather and water levels permit in Spring 2005. 

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Cacapon Institute - From the Cacapon to the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay, we protect rivers and watersheds using science and education.

Cacapon Institute
#10 Rock Ford Road
Great Cacapon, WV 25422
304-258-8013 (tele)

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Frank Rodgers,  Executive Director

Website  made possible by funding from The Norcross Wildlife Foundation,  the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Virginia Environmental Endowment, NOAA-BWET, USEPA, The MARPAT Foundation, and our generous members.