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for people who care about the West

Riparian restoration guru

  NAME: Bill Zeedyk

AGE: 72 years

OCCUPATION: Riparian restoration guru

MILES DRIVEN TO EDUCATE THE MASSES: 35,000-40,000 per year.

FAVORITE ROAD FOOD: Nestle’s Crunch bars. He eats them by the box.

CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT: A seven-foot walking stick, cut from a century plant while hiking in the El Concillo Mountains. It serves as a pointer during his presentations and keeps him upright in deep water. “And sometimes it’s also my brain. I use it to generate ideas,” he says. “I can’t exist without my stick!”

CURRENT PROJECTS: “Let the Water Do the Work,” a “profusely illustrated” book to be published by the Quivira Coalition.

In a two-hour conversation about rivers, Bill Zeedyk never once uses the word “water.”

Instead, the stocky, soft-spoken septuagenarian speaks of a river as if it’s an animal – one that migrates in seasonal floods, erodes banks to make room for itself, and struggles to evolve a level of flow that will nurture the surrounding habitat.

But that balance can be difficult to achieve in the delicate landscapes of the arid Southwest. Invasive trees can armor a stream’s banks and force it to dig too deep and fast, while cattle can overgraze grasses and shrubs that prevent erosion. Mismanaged rural roads can gash a stream’s channel like a knife opening a blood vessel.

Zeedyk has spent more than a decade developing “induced meandering” – a technique using wood and rock structures to help damaged streams “re-evolve” a healthy flow. He’s promoted his restoration methods through the Quivira Coalition – an environmental organization that works with ranchers and conservationists throughout the West – and Zeedyk Ecological Consulting, LLC, a “two-person show” he runs with his wife out of their home in Sandia Park, N.M.

Zeedyk has put hundreds of thousands of miles on his pickup traveling around the Southwest to give his induced meandering workshops. One of his trips takes him more than 200 miles to Comanche Creek in northern New Mexico, where he’s worked with the state environmental department to restore habitat for the nearly endangered native cutthroat trout.

White beard framing his weathered face, brimmed hat riding low over his eyes, a staff in his hand, Zeedyk resembles a wandering wizard as he watches for clues to the Comanche’s problems. He examines the stream with the studied patience he developed as a teenager, fishing and canoeing in New Jersey and Maryland -- a trait later honed over 35 years as a Forest Service biologist.

Then he breaks out diagrams and sketches to teach a mixed crowd of ranchers, conservationists, scientists, fly-fisherman and other volunteers how to turn the gullied waterway into a more riparian area of green trees and lush grass that supports an array of plants and animals.

But first he has to get his audience to think like a river.

“That’s actually the hardest part,” Zeedyk says. “It’s difficult for them to understand what a healthy riparian [environment] looks like.”

To demonstrate, he shows before-and-after pictures of his baby: The Pueblo Colorado Wash in Ganado, Ariz.

When Zeedyk took on that project with the Park Service and the Navajo Nation in 1997, the wash was a 12-foot-deep incised arroyo as wide as an elevator shaft, choked with invasive tamarisk and Russian olive trees. Today, canopies of cottonwoods and tender tribes of willows populate sandbars along a channel as wide as a four-lane highway. Grasshoppers tick and fly through bulrush reeds as long as Zeedyk’s forearm. Tracks of mule deer and coyote pattern along the trickling current.

But Zeedyk doesn’t talk too long. It’s time to build the structures.

They fit along the stream channel almost like the fixtures in a pinball machine. The volunteers set up baffles – thick wooden posts arranged like half-buried bowling pins that bounce a stream’s current into an opposite bank and create a meander that will slow the flow. They install wicker-weirs – small fences of woven sticks and branches that create riffles. They build post veins that angle out into the current like paddles and capture sediment to grow sandbars that eventually host trees and grasses along the banks.

Zeedyk likes to see the crowd working with their hands.

“There seems to be a mentality that the quickest way to do something is with a bulldozer. That’s not necessarily true. You can change the course of a river by hand. So I’ve been trying to develop techniques that empower individuals to try rather than say, ‘It’s not worth it to try.’ ”

Zeedyk’s ideas might move against some human currents. He remembers a hands-on exhibit at a local museum that ran water through a sandbox and challenged visitors to prevent erosion. Zeedyk set up miniature versions of his structures in the water’s path, then watched a group of people approach the exhibit.

They tore out his structures and built dams.
The author is a freelance writer based in eastern Pennsylvania.