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Water: Recovery Potential


Steps Cascade

Restoring the nation's tens of thousands of impaired waters represents an immense workload. No restoration program, public or private, has the resources to work on all impaired waters at once. Well-informed planning is essential. Optimizing the strategies by which so many waters are restored can produce more and earlier successes and have profound effects on restored waters' benefits to society and the environment. The concept of recovery potential - the restorability of a water body - is a primary consideration in restoration programs whose main goal is to bring about recovery.

This website on Recovery Potential Screening provides a systematic approach for comparing waters or watersheds and identifying differences in how well they may respond to restoration. Originally, this approach was developed as a technical aid to states, territories and tribes (hereafter referred to as states for brevity) concerning their Clean Water Act obligation to "develop a prioritized schedule" for creating Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) to reduce pollution in impaired waters. Recovery Potential Screening can also be applied in a wide range of other watershed activities. Rather than a 'one-size-fits-all' procedure, this site offers a flexible framework of methods, tools, technical information and instructional examples that can be customized for any impaired waters restoration program in any geographic locality. When used with existing data, it provides a rapid assessment and comparison method at a general screening level. Recovery Potential Screening is a technical assistance tool that is useful to numerous Clean Water Act-related programs, but it is not an EPA requirement nor does it constitute or modify EPA policies or program guidance.


Recovery Potential Screening is a technical method for comparing the relative restorability of large numbers of water bodies. This is a method that measures, for each water or watershed, several ecological, stressor, and social context indicators that are associated with the likelihood that a restoration effort may succeed. The user selects the indicators based on what is most appropriate to the waters being assessed and their surrounding communities, the availability of quality data, and the goals of the restoration effort. Measuring the same indicators on all waters allows for systematic, even-handed and information-based comparison. Calculating separate ecological, stressor, and social indices enables the user to consider each of these three classes of factors, individually or in combination. The ecological index score reflects overall condition and the capacity of the watershed to regain functionality, based on metrics related to natural watershed processes and structure. The stressor score reflects the pressures on watershed condition from several primary sources of pollutants and water quality impairments. The social context score includes many factors, such as community involvement, incentives, economics, governance, regulation, and planning status, that do not constitute watershed condition but often strongly influence the level of effort and complexity of making improvements. A Recovery Potential Integrated (RPI) score is calculated by combining these three indices.


There are many uses for Recovery Potential Screening. Some users apply screening results to identify the better prospects for successful restoration and target these watersheds as a priority. Others use the screening method to increase awareness of the relative difficulty of restoration in their watersheds, and apply these insights to planning and implementing a best course of action. Recovery Potential Screening does not label any watershed as definitely unrestorable or restorable; it is a comparative, decision support tool that estimates relative differences in restorability based on multiple lines of evidence.

There are numerous ways to use this website. Primarily, the site provides an instructional pathway for users who wish to carry out a Recovery Potential Screening assessment. In addition, the seven-step screening method is supported by a wide variety of onsite tools, resources and information. Users may wish to download the restoration and recovery literature database, which houses over 1600 citations of technical papers that describe recovery-relevant characteristics of waters or watersheds. These papers provided the basis for developing recovery potential indicators, which are accessible through this site in indicator summary (PDF) (49 pp, 565K, About PDF) form or in greater detail as indicator reference sheets that contain notes on measurement options and relevant, indicator-specific excerpts from the technical literature. Scoring guidance and tools help users decide among the different options for assigning values and weights to each indicator, normalizing the values and generating spreadsheets of summary scores. A downloadable software script for displaying results as 3-D bubble plots provides users a tool for simultaneously considering the ecological, stressor and social indicator scores for each water. The website also includes brief summaries of example projects and publications and presentations for further information. Links to additional websites that address restoration planning and priority-setting, indicators, and other applications of the recovery concept appear under other priority-setting sites.


This website's methods, tools and technical information sources provide substantial assistance based on the progress made in impaired waters recovery science, but our understanding of all factors influencing restorability remains limited. Greater understanding of all the factors affecting restorability is still needed to help increase restoration success. Sharing your results from different assessments and your technical information or publications involving specific indicators will add to this website's value for others. Please contact us with any contributions relevant to specific recovery potential indicators, methods, or projects.

See the fact sheet (PDF) (2 pp, 857K, About PDF) or the overview publication (PDF) (20 pp, 348K, About PDF) for more details about Recovery Potential Screening as an aid to restoration planning. For more on how to use screening results, see ways to use rank-ordering (PDF) (4 pp, 727K, About PDF), ways to use bubble plotting (PDF) (6 pp, 619K, About PDF), and ways to use mapping (PDF) (4 pp, 653K, About PDF).

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