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Around the world, land degradation causes significant loss of biodiversity, impacts food security and water purification. Unsustainable land-use practices, increased population, and climate change further threaten the viability of native plants and wetland species, promote soil erosion, and limit water supplies.

Nature-based solutions are now being explored for international water resource management, disaster risk reduction, and climate change adaptation. Efforts to develop more sustainable, regenerative agricultural ecosystems, that maintain cover and promote soil health, can help restore natural processes. People living in dryland climates have historically installed rock detention structures to hold water in place and secure fertile crops. “Natural infrastructure” is one option that offers a cost-effective and flexible approach for disaster-risk and water-resource management.  

Research conducted by the USGS Aridland Water Harvesting Study has proven that natural infrastructure in dryland streams (NIDS), such as rock detention structures, can restore and create perennial freshwater wetlands, support riparian vegetation, sequester carbon and improve channel morphology and groundwater processes. This traditional ecological knowledge, using NIDS to slow flows, has been documented for millennia in riparian ecosystems of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, and is comparable to beaver-engineered systems of North America. NIDS can mitigate climate-related disturbances and stressors, such as drought, water shortages, flooding, heatwaves, dust storms, wildfire, biodiversity losses, and food insecurity.

Cartoon portrays how installing natural infrastructure can impact the water and carbon budgets of dryland streams and watersheds.
Norman, L. M., Lal, R., Wohl, E., Fairfax, E., Gellis, A. C., & Pollock, M. M. (2022). Natural infrastructure in dryland streams (NIDS) can establish regenerative wetland sinks that reverse desertification and strengthen climate resilience. Science of the Total Environment.

The USGS co-founded the Sky Island Restoration Collaborative (SIRC), a bi-national community-based collaboration of government and non-governmental organizations, private landowners, ranchers, students, volunteers, scientists, and restoration practitioners that work together to develop and implement research about dryland riparian detention structures. SIRC partners have been participating in developing experiments to test NIDS in the Madrean Archipelago Ecoregion on the US-Mexico borderlands. The recent increase in atmospheric carbon, combined with multiple climate disaster declarations, has further galvanized collaboration of the SIRC to leverage funding, resources, and technical expertise to restore degraded landscapes. Over the last few years, the combined grassroots effort has successfully installed thousands of structures on public and private lands, documented their efficacy, and trained new restoration practitioners and scientists.

Learn more about the "Sky Island Restoration Collaboration" (SIRC) at SERNews and new Documentary | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov) and Trailer — The Sky Island Restoration Collaborative | U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov)

Please enjoy this brand new short video showcasing NIDS at the Turkey Creek Watershed, in Southeast Arizona, where thousands of rock detention structures were installed over 30-years ago. This amazing demonstration site has been a catalyst of changing land and water-management for ranchers, scientists, restoration practitioners, and agency leaders who have visited.  Learn about the USGS systematic case study there that employs observation and experiment to develop verifiable data documenting the efficacy of natural infrastructure as a nature-based solution.

Click to watch the 10-minute documentary, “Re-greening a dryland watershed.” 

Did You Know

  • Just like beavers, we can use rocks, wood, or debris to build natural infrastructure in dryland streams (NIDS).
  • NIDS create freshwater wetlands in riparian areas.
  • NIDS-created wetlands can sequester as much carbon as coastal mangrove estuaries!
  • Preventative investments in NIDS can improve resilience and save money.

The USGS Western Geographic Science Center’s Ecohydrology Team uses advanced resource technology in monitoring and modeling landscapes and watersheds. Scientists have documented a huge suite of ecosystem services (or co-benefits) of riparian detention structures. New research also looks at the using the benefits of NIDS as tradeoffs to safeguard natural systems and offset water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, this work will help land and water-resource managers to conserve biodiversity and help communities develop a stewardship restoration economy.

 Useful Information

Established in 1879, the U.S. Geological Survey has evolved over the decades, matching its talent and knowledge to the progress of science and technology. The Survey is the primary science agency for the Department of the Interior. It is sought out for its natural science expertise and its vast earth and biological data collection. Their mission is to monitor, analyze, and predict current and evolving dynamics of complex human and natural Earth-system interactions and to deliver actionable information to decision makers.