Events & Media

In the Weeds
Bren School Group Project recognized for interdisciplinary approach to watershed restoration

By Laura Lea Rubino

At the urging of their client, two members of the “River Arundo” Master’s Group Project  — Eliza Berry and Marc Steele — traveled to San Diego last fall to present their project at the California Invasive Plant Council Symposium. The students joined 25 other groups in a two-hour poster presentation, sharing their progress to that point with an audience of land managers from public agencies, academic researchers, and others working to remove invasive plants to restore important California ecosystems.

A Bren Group Project team is working to develop cost-effective approaches to removing invasive Arundo donax, which is overtaking the Santa Clara Watershed and depleting water resources in a drought-stricken region.

The River Arundo group, comprising Ian Bell, Zach McKelvey, Brooke Prentice-Dekker and Berry and Steele (all MESM 2016), is working to quantify the costs and benefits of restoring the Santa Clara Watershed, a region that is slowly being overtaken by the invasive Arundo donax reed, known as Giant Cane.

Reaching heights of nearly 20 feet, Arundo is a relentless species estimated to use three to four times more water than the native vegetation it easily displaces. In a region where drought has already caused water shortages, Arundo is an unwelcome water guzzler. The loss of native vegetation caused by spreading Arundo alters historic fire, flood, and erosion patterns within the watershed. Such changes threaten the health of the watershed ecosystem and put nearby human communities at greater risk for more severe natural disasters such as landslides and wildfires.

River Arundo’s stakeholders have worked hard to return the watershed to its historic state, but have seen their efforts hindered by costs. The Group Project’s client, the University of California Riparian Invasion Research Laboratory, hopes that the team will develop a method to help land managers prioritize restoration strategies that are both cost-effective and beneficial to the environment.

By conducting a cost-benefit analysis on watershed-wide repair, the Bren students hope to demonstrate that if done the right way, the benefits of removing Arundo outweigh the costs. The team will provide land managers with a document outlining their results, which can be used to pursue funding and gain increased buy-in from local landowners.

While the symposium afforded the students a valuable opportunity to share their work and receive feedback from an expert audience, perhaps even more important was the strong affirmation they received for their approach.

The final symposium session in San Diego emphasized the need for future management plans that marry ecological and economic analyses, a common approach taken by Bren School faculty and students in addressing environmental problems. River Arundo received praise at the symposium for being the only project to have taken such an approach.

The Bren School recognizes the value of collaborative environmental initiatives and is devoted to projects that build bridges between disciplines. River Arundo is a perfect reflection of the school’s interdisciplinary approach to solving environmental problems, and the group is excited to know that its methodology puts it well ahead of the curve.

“It reiterated the significance of our project and let us know that there is a broader community outside of
those working on the lower Santa Clara River that is really interested in our work,” Steele said.

Steele said that he and Berry left the symposium “feeling really excited about the usefulness of our work — both the implications it can have for supporting future arundo removal projects, and its value as a potential case study for integrating ecology and economics in restoration work."