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Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels

The volume reviewed below comes highly recommended for all Permaculturists working in or around any water channels, and particularly on the broad-acre. While the methods happen to apply most immediately in drylands, they will apply directly anywhere that erosion, down-cutting, rapid gully formation, and other forms of channel incision occur. Keep in mind that these techniques will also apply in ephemeral channels that only carry water during rare rain storms, and are otherwise ‘dry.’

Importantly, even if you are working more within mesic environments and do not see a lot of actively incising channels, just the knowledge you will gain about stream dynamics and working with various stream powers and flood-regimes will be applicable and invaluable to your work. These factors, such as the ‘bankfull’ flood, and the specific inter-relations and ratios of multiple stream variables remain the same as basic physics of water flow no matter what the environment. These physics will dictate exactly where and where not to place any kind of built structure within an active water channel, and enable you to predict results of your efforts with much greater precision. How many of us doing this kind of work have lost stream structures to a “gully-washer”? The knowledge and approach in this book could have saved many a headache, cash outlay, and enabled construction of more durable, persistent, and ultimately useful work.

Well over a dozen different kinds of structures are detailed with explicit plan drawings and instructions for their construction. This adds another scale order to the number of stream restoration and erosion management structures within the traditional Permaculture palette. Our toolbox continues to expand! You will find great benefits to this, allowing much more nuanced stream work, for much lesser costs. For example, six or eight different structures could be built and established in a reach, using simple materials from on-site, for what it would have cost to build a single traditional gabion structure (especially where gabion materials were brought from off-site, as is often the case).

All of this is very much in keeping with the “small, slow solutions” principle, and using the least effort for the most effect. Working smarter, not harder. Very applicable here is Mollison’s well-known dictum for using “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions”. Understanding the science of flowing water dynamics allows for much more specific ways of interacting with these dynamics, using the forces that these systems themselves demonstrate.

Permaculturists will already intuit the reasons this attitude and approach are effective, and many are already experimenting with these emerging and evolving strategies to the great benefit of watersheds where they work. I reckon it’s safe to predict this will only continue to increase substantially in the years to come. If you’re working with water and have not had the opportunity to learn much of the science of stream dynamics I invite you to read the review for this book below for more details, and then to get a copy. Most of all I invite you to “let the water do the work!”

Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channelsby Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier (review by Owen Hablutzel)

Very few would disagree that life is a gift well worth keeping, or that water is the critical, key element that sustains this capacity for everything alive. These basic facts have been well understood since the dawn of human time. Yet when we look almost anywhere in the world, and particularly in the drier regions that cover more than two-thirds of the earth’s land surface, we see clear evidence everywhere that we humans are allowing our most precious and invaluable resource to drain out of our lives and landscapes at ever increasing rates.

This neglect is truly astonishing, given water’s importance, yet our difficulties continue to worsen. Consulting with land managers across the western U.S. for example, I have found that water issues are routine. And this is by no means exclusive to the West. A cursory glance at U.N. projections or the frightening titles of current books on water will shout out the level of this crisis accelerating globally. There is truly nobody, and nothing alive, that water issues do not touch.

If what is needed to disrupt this downward spiral is small and simple yet direct and high-impact solutions for working with water, then authors and stream restoration innovators Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier offer exactly such a remedy in their recent compelling book, Let the Water Do the Work (Quivira Coalition, 2009). A humble yet powerful method for working effectively with water systems is explained in an easy-to-use manual format. The aim is to empower people, groups, and organizations to begin to address significant water challenges, and to create the healthy and vibrant water communities and landscapes that everybody desires.

Zeedyk and Clothier have been working and experimenting with their evolving method to restore ailing water channels in the liquid-challenged U.S. southwest for well over a decade. To help enable a reversal of the increasing trend of these landscapes unzipping and bleeding dry, their book thoroughly explains the most effective practices that they regularly employ. It describes what they have learned while using these strategies and monitoring results on their hundreds of projects at a wide range of channel sizes and scales. The key approach here is the Induced Meandering of the book’s subtitle.

The need to induce meandering is a result of the extensive channel incision that is the increasing underlying condition of most watersheds and channels in dryer parts of the world. Channel incision is a situation where the stream has cut so deeply into the earth that all water flow loses contact and vital connection to the natural floodplain. The result is that these abandoned floodplains and critical riparian zones dry out. The ability to effectively store moisture in the landscape is lost. Life is profoundly diminished.

These incised channels are often the unintended consequence of other human infrastructure and land use decisions. They behave as opened arteries in the landscape by greatly increasing erosion, de-stabilizing normal water flows, straightening channels, and thereby speeding up the bleeding flows of water off of our land and out of our communities.

The induced meandering method deals directly with this sort of land and water trauma by enabling greater system health. The method is inexpensive and flexible and works with the natural flow regime of any channel to re-introduce a slower, less erosive, more relaxed, and more sinuous flow of water through the landscape. Critically, the vital connection of water flow with its floodplain zone is re-established. Thirsty and drying riparian zones and regions are re-hydrated. More groundwater storage, more habitat for fish, riparian plants, trees, and wildlife result.

A further aspect of induced meandering that makes it so accessible and low-cost is its elegant use of simple and natural materials normally available at the project locations. Rocks, logs, sticks, and brush, like juniper and willow, are the raw materials of choice. These are used to construct a diversity of small, natural-looking structures that are the primary tools of this method. When these structures are placed correctly in a channel, with close attention to the stream pattern and water flow dynamics (a sort of ‘stream jiu-jitsu’ explained very clearly in the book), they help to nudge water flows and stream sediments back into more reliable and stable patterns capable of supporting more life. Done well these ‘nudges’ encourage a stream back to its naturally stable form that is simply a result of the actual physics of how water flows in landscapes.

Let the Water Do the Work is a complete guidebook to building the structures which work with water flow as the primary tools of the method. These include baffles, vanes, one-rock dams, Zuni bowls, media lunas, wicker weirs, and a few others. Additional skills and methods are useful for engaging in this work. These include:

  • reading the landscape
  • assessing and surveying stream type
  • locating and constructing structures
  • monitoring your work
  • adaptive management
  • whole project planning and implementation

Each of these topics and approaches are extensively covered, from soup to nuts. This goes well beyond the theory and the practical ‘how-to’ guides and into many actual case studies that demonstrate the application of these practices in real-world, clear, and understandable contexts.
Importantly, the method and strategies are explained in a way that they can begin to be used immediately with positive results by anyone who cares about water in their landscape. At the same time, for teams or individuals who have such skill-sets and are eager to put them to work, all of the scientific detail and precision math of stream dynamics engineering are also given for practical use. The book, for example, overflows with more color photos than most coffee-table books, clearly depicting the method and its obvious benefits. There are an abundance of helpful and clearly-illustrated, in-color schematics, plan drawings, cross-sections, including directional arrows and measurement ratios down to the last critical detail. The appendix by itself is a veritable starter’s kit for stream restoration, chock-full of useful worksheets and spreadsheets for everything from reading the landscape to channel morphology to structure and materials inventory to full project implementation checklists and monitoring sheets. It’s truly one-stop-shopping to tackle a hands-on stream restorative project at almost any scale.

Ancient Roman statesman, Seneca, wisely declared long ago from his dry, Mediterranean land, “where a spring rises or a water flows there ought we to build altars and make sacrifices.” Let the Water Do the Work does one better. It translates Seneca’s plea to honor water and its importance for all life into an instructive guide for the applied science, art, and philosophy of induced meandering. By making such imminently practical tools and strategies for healing our streams and watersheds accessible, Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier have effectively empowered people and drylands to take great leaps forward in the number and scale of health-restorative projects. Stream restoration is democratized! So, is Seneca’s water-magnifying ideal reachable? The power is now in our hands.

If you are a land owner, student of ecology, restoration, or water, a rancher, natural resource agency, watershed health group, fisherman or water recreationist, an ecological consultant, university, wildlife promoter, or just an active lover of life and want to know more about how you can help enlarge life’s most critical resource in a simple and hands-on way, this book needs to be in your library. Better yet, take it out in the field with others and let the meanders flow! Working together with our water to create more system health gives our land, our farms, and our communities the gift of more stability, resilience, and a surer future. Surely Seneca would agree, no better water or life honoring altars can we build.


  1. Mr. Lancaster’s books adress a broader scope and are fantastic and thorough work… they are especially well detailed in the area of more urban rainwater harvest scenarios, where Let the Water Do the Work is aimed more at strategies specifically within water channels.

    Brad himself has told me that he plans to change a significant portion of his books for their next printing. Particularly he wants to improve the sections on working in streams, on check-dams/gabions, etc… because of what he has learned from the author’s of Let the Water Do the Work and others, such as Craig Sponholtz of Dryland Solutions, about these methods. These are, as of 2008 at least, the techniques Brad uses in water channels.

    If you scroll up from these comments the fourth photo you will encounter is from a one-rock dam along a project reach Brad and myself co-designed as part of a larger Craig Sponholtz designed project.

  2. great work Owen! Only just found this review. Just a very small note that if anyone in Australia wants a copy of this book we have lots of em, thru our work with Kirk Gadzia and his wife Tamara Gadzia who edited the above book. Feel free to get in touch if you’d like one.

    All the best and keep increasing the sinuosity, Owen…

  3. Learning more every day to improve our environment and your book is a great source to stimulate the brain. Making a small change in nature today will yield a significant change in nature tomorrow…and hopefully all for the betterment of our environment.

    Thank you Bill and Van for thinking outside of the box to positively change our environment. I will think of you again while drinking fresh, clean and cool stream water!


  4. Dear sr madam
    Iam writing from ecuador iam very keen in purchaising
    Your book .i wonder if you can let me know how to adquire
    This book
    Kind regards
    Juan pablo clavijo

  5. This is great information. There are so many miles of disturbed streams and drainages that we have to find less expensive methods to help restore them. Using on-site materials and low-tech methods helps to ensure a more natural approach to stream rehabilitation. Thank you to everyone who contributes to the cause of improving our streams.
    – TJ Burr, Stream Restoration Specialist & Civil Engineer

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