I volunteered to staff the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ exhibit building at the state fair on Aug. 30, something I’ve done many times before I retired from my job at the DNR.

Talking with people about “critters” and answering questions about what DNR employees do is enjoyable and educational. Watching children and adults peer into tanks for close-up views of a red corn snake, a rusty crayfish, a northern snakehead or a horseshoe crab while hearing the excitement in their voices is fun. It also reminds me why I became a biologist.

This year, children coming to see the DNR’s exhibits were invited to go on a treasure hunt of sorts. They were given a list of 10 questions and encouraged to find the answers by visiting the various exhibits and talking to DNR staff. To get the answer to the first question, “How many miles of freshwater streams are there in Maryland?” children had to ask me or my colleague, Sara.

Before giving anyone the answer, though, we asked for their best guess. Not surprisingly, the children’s answers were all over the place. An eager lad, about 8 years old and wearing an Orioles T-shirt, enthusiastically shouted, “27!” Wrong answer, but he gets an “A” for confidence. Other guesses were usually in the low hundreds. None of the children even came close. They all looked amazed, as did their parents, when we told them the answer: 12,000 miles.

To help children grasp the size of that number, we told them that 12,000 miles is about halfway around the globe. When their blank looks said that comparison didn’t register, we told them that if they flew from Baltimore to Japan and back, they would travel a little more than 12,000 miles. That explanation widened many of their eyes. I hope that some of them will remember.

The point of all this is that Maryland, a relatively small state — almost 10,000 square miles — has a high density and therefore many miles of freshwater streams. It has been said that we all live within a 15-minute drive of one or more streams.

And because Maryland also has a lot of people — about 600 per square mile — we have an intimate connection to streams. This makes them especially vulnerable to our activities: What we do on the landscape can quickly flow downhill and damage a nearby stream. As a result, damaged streams are found all over the state.

How many miles of damaged streams? you ask. More than 27 but not 12,000.

Are there data available to tell us how many miles? Yes, there are. Soon after the third and most recent statewide round of the Maryland Biological Stream Survey was completed in 2009, the DNR reported that about 2,300 miles of freshwater streams were in good ecological condition and only minimally damaged, if at all — the top of the heap.

But many more streams sampled by the MBSS showed varying degrees of damage caused by an array of stressors, some known; others only suspected. About 2,700 miles of freshwater streams were found to be in poor ecological condition or seriously damaged, while an additional 1,600 miles of streams were even worse off, in very poor condition or critically damaged. The rest of the approximately 3,400 miles of streams sampled by the MBSS were in fair ecological condition or only moderately damaged.

So, based on the MBSS, the DNR’s statewide monitoring and assessment program, about 7,700 miles of freshwater streams are damaged, either moderately, seriously or critically. By the way, 7,700 miles is about 1,000 miles longer than the one-way distance between Baltimore and Toyko, Japan.

Because damaged streams are probably not functioning normally, they can be viewed as candidates for restoration. Stream “restoration” means different things to different people — ranging from localized engineering actions, such as repairing a badly eroded stream bank, to more holistic, ecosystem-based efforts.

For this commentary, my use of the word “restoration” refers to management actions intended to raise ecological integrity to pre-damage levels and re-establish the structure and functions of the stream ecosystem. For information on the attributes of restored ecosystems, I suggest a 2004 publication published by the Society for Ecological Restoration, “SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration,” accessible via their website, ser.org.

Stream restoration projects are being planned and implemented in Maryland as I write this, although most projects are not yet aimed at re-establishing ecosystem structure and functions. Rather, a massive effort is under way to target, fund and implement projects with two objectives: reduce nutrient and sediment loads that are flowing into Chesapeake Bay.

These projects are being funded by the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund and other sources. Many Maryland counties are including stream restoration projects in their watershed implementation strategies required by the EPA to reduce nutrient and sediment runoff and transport, actions necessary to achieve the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load and to satisfy requirements for MS4 and NPDES permits.

Tim Wheeler reported in a June 14, 2015 article in the Baltimore Sun that almost 3,700 miles of streams across Maryland have been targeted for restoration by 2025, “at a cost to local and state governments of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Stream restoration is a big business throughout the Bay watershed. Many dollars will either be wisely spent to achieve good results or possibly wasted. Only time will tell which outcome will be dominant.

With so many miles of damaged streams to fix and limited dollars available to fix them, what to do? Restoration dollars are often spent on streams in the worst condition, where the costs are high and the chances for success are low. Or, streams sometimes reach the top of a priority list opportunistically; i.e., when a cooperative landowner is found.

What’s needed, in my opinion, is a more objective, empirically based prioritization strategy to help decide when, where and how to allocate limited restoration funds to maximize benefits for the ecosystem.

An effective prioritization strategy should embrace the notion that the benefits obtained per restoration dollar spent will be greatest for slightly and moderately damaged streams, but lowest for severely and critically damaged streams — those that are impacted by many stressors and likely have very low probabilities of recovery.

An effective prioritization strategy should also acknowledge that protecting our healthiest streams before they become damaged is especially important from a Bay TMDL perspective. Protecting a stream to prevent its damage is almost always much more cost-effective than trying to restore that stream after it becomes damaged.

I suggest we borrow a prioritization strategy for planning and implementing stream restoration actions from the medical world, an approach that has stood the test of time, is still used by doctors and nurses, and is also being used to protect rare species and conserve biodiversity: triage.

Triage comes from the French word, “trier,” meaning to sort, separate, select, choose or cull. Triage was first used by Dominique Jean Larrey, a surgeon in Napoleon’s army. He used a triage system to ration limited medical resources for optimal benefit and to achieve the greatest good for the largest number of sick, injured and wounded soldiers.

Trying to decide how, when and where to spend limited dollars to restore many damaged streams is analogous to a battlefield, the site of a natural disaster, or a busy hospital emergency room. These are places where the number of sick, injured and wounded people may exceed the available medical staff and/or supplies needed to treat them all in a timely manner. To prioritize patient treatments based on the severity of their injuries and their chances of recovery, the sorting process or system called triage is performed.

As an example, battlefield triage typically sorts sick, injured and wounded soldiers into several priority groups for allocating treatment. A five-group sorting scheme is one application of battlefield triage.

  •  Group A: Those soldiers with minor injuries or wounds that don’t need much if any medical care.
  •  Group B: Those whose injuries or wounds are moderately severe but non-life threatening and who can wait several hours or more for treatment.
  •  Group C: Those whose injuries or wounds are serious and life-threatening, but who are in stable condition and will need medical care soon but not immediately.
  •  Group D: Those with serious injuries or wounds who will likely survive, but only in they are treated immediately.
  •  Group E: Those who are already dead or who will almost certainly die even with treatment.

Using data from a comprehensive statewide stream assessment like the DNR’s MBSS or more localized stream assessment data sets collected by county agencies, the condition of individual streams can be quantified. Then each stream can be placed into the most appropriate triage priority group described earlier to guide management actions.

Following this strategy, the most healthy streams would be assigned to Group A and protected from further stress. No costly actions to restore Group A streams would be needed.

One strategy for dealing with moderately and seriously damaged streams would be to first arrange them across a gradient of damage from least to most. The most seriously damaged streams could be assigned to Group D and be placed at the top of the restoration priority list. Less and least moderately and seriously damaged streams could be assigned to Groups C and B, respectively, and restored in that order.

A reason for applying this strategy is to “fix” the most damaged streams that still have some chance of recovering first, before they degrade further and end up in Group E.

Another strategy for dealing with moderately and seriously damaged streams assigned to Groups B, C and D that I prefer would be to restore Group B streams first. Group B streams are less damaged than the streams assigned to Groups C and D and therefore should be easier and cheaper to restore, with higher chances for success. The restoration of Groups C and D streams could be prioritized for restoration next and pursued if funds are still available after Group B streams have been restored.

For Group E streams that are in very poor condition or critically damaged, plus even some of the worst poor condition or seriously damaged streams assigned to Group D, I suggest that no actions be taken to attempt restoration. The costs to attempt restoration of these very badly damaged streams will almost certainly be very high and the ecological benefits at or near zero. But, some degree of short-term stabilization should be done in these streams to eliminate hazards to human health/safety and improve aesthetics.

The triage approach described here is a suggested first step in targeting damaged streams for restoration aimed at returning a stream to its pre-damage level of ecological integrity and restoring its ecological structure and functions.

As mentioned earlier, the major focus of stream restoration projects in Maryland and the rest of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is currently on reducing nutrients and sediment loads. Little more than lip service is being paid to ecological integrity. But I sense growing momentum within the Chesapeake Bay Program and other governmental agencies to also consider the ecological conditions of streams while working to reduce nutrients and sediments.

In time, I’m hopeful that restoration project proposals that aim to raise the ecological integrity of damaged streams — or yield what Rich Starr of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife calls “biological lift” — while also reducing nutrient and sediment loads, will have a better chance of being funded than proposed projects lacking a biological focus.

Triage can sort out those streams with still intact ecological integrity (i.e., mostly healthy or only slightly degraded) that do not need costly restoration actions, but deserve to be protected, and soon, lest they become further damaged.

Triage can also sort out those streams that are moderately damaged and whose ecological structure/functions can likely be recovered with reasonable costs, if the key stressors are removed and appropriate restoration actions taken fairly soon.

And perhaps most importantly, triage can sort out those streams whose ecological integrity is so severely compromised or irretrievably lost such that restoration is almost certainly not possible, even if much money is spent in the attempt.

The most defensible strategy for dealing with these badly damaged streams is to implement minimal management actions to improve their appearance and ensure they do not endanger human health and safety.

The allocation of public resources to stream restoration actions should not be taken lightly. The science and the technology of stream restoration are slowly developing and there is much we don’t know about if and how a stream can be restored. Deciding where restoration is to take place should consider the ecological value of the degraded stream, its location in the watershed, the probability of restoration success, the benefits if restoration is successful and total required costs.

The use of triage to prioritize management actions offers one way to make sure that restoration dollars are spent where they will do the most good for the most miles of Maryland streams.