River Management & Restoration: What River Do We Wish for
2. Review and Discussion of Key Concepts
2.1. Riverine Ecosystem: What Matters to Us
2.1.1. Life First of All?
2.1.2. Geomorphology First of All: Not Quite!
2.1.3. Restoring longitudinal Continuity May Bring No Benefits: The Case of the Júcar River
- Aim: to improve the fluvial ecosystem (at the same time satisfying other needs, particularly water uses)
- Hypothesis (and conviction): enhancing longitudinal continuity is «good» (an Artificial Neural Network model developed by  for fish species richness supported this conclusion)
- Task: to prioritize amongst potential interventions (already identified) those that appear most likely to meet with (demonstrable) success
- Practical–strategic problem: how to ensure «success»?
- The HyMo component according to the WFD construct does not even come into play when the general status is less than “high”; so its improvement may be transparent in terms of the overall status assessment;
- The “worst case wins” structure of the status assessment adopted by the WFD (see Section 2.5) may freeze the scoring, even though a component is indeed improving;
- A physical improvement may be not sufficient to make the discrete WFD classification make a jump into a higher class.
- The biotic status may not improve because of several other negatively affecting causal factors. The structural longitudinal connectivity (or continuity), an important subcomponent of HyMo, is indeed just one of several causal factors which influence the status of the fish fauna population (Figure 2): re-stocking for sport fishing and the alteration of water regime (very low flows or loss of due variations because of extractions, or hydropeaking due to electric reservoir management) are the key factors in many reaches. The riparian vegetation plays an important role too (shading, supply of organic matter, habitat, etc.), along with other factors.
- In addition, an improvement of longitudinal connectivity may even induce a negative effect, because of allochthonous species that may spread more easily.
2.2. Ecological Status or Trajectory
2.2.1. Forms or Processes
2.2.2. State Trajectory and Its Challenges
2.2.3. Status or Causal Factors? The Dentist Syndrome
2.3. From “Health” to “Value”
2.4. The Reference Conditions (RC): A Dead Concept?
2.4.1. How Can We Measure “Health”? A Relative Perspective for an Absolute Judgment
- We are unable to define what “natural” means in practical terms, as all too often pristine reaches no longer exist (unless for minor water courses); on the other hand, it is even more questionable to refer to the “original state” because almost everywhere (particularly in Western Europe as well as in Asia and in Southern America) territories—and rivers—have been heavily altered since ancient times (in EU back to the Roman empire and even before). Perhaps, it makes sense in countries like Australia and New Zealand where a “pre-colonization” phase is clearly distinguishable and can be labelled as the “original status” , although, strictly speaking, in New Zealand the Maori contributed in important ways to modifying the territory through large wood fires from 700 years ago (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_New_Zealand#M%C4%81ori_arrival_and_settlement, accessed on 6 May 2021). It is even more dangerous to restrict the analysis to the management time scale (last century only) because we would rely on a legacy of heavy alterations deriving from the industrial revolution with consequent widespread deforestation and hence (in particular in south-eastern France and north-western Italy) larger solid supplies, wider riverbeds, etc., compared to the “origins” . Hence, that “before” would be quite far from “natural”;
- We are not even able to define what ‘natural’ means conceptually in a “clean” fashion, because everything fluctuates and evolves, displaying cycles, trends or even dramatic changes in river styles ; therefore, in order to define a specific status, we should choose a particular moment in time … which one though? Climate itself is indeed not steady, even in recent times and independently from anthropogenic influence (think of the little ice age );
- Finally, perhaps this unreachable “natural state” may no longer be desirable today from a purely environmental–ecological point of view because the context has profoundly changed and what was “natural” before may be intrinsically incompatible with today’s climate, species, vegetation, lithology (and definitely with today’s anthropic context). It is not surprising, indeed, that nowadays we often strive to protect habitats and ecosystems regarded as “natural” that in fact developed over time as a consequence of human intervention (reservoirs, abandoned mining sites that spontaneously re naturalized, etc.).
2.4.2. Leitbild: A Possible Solution, But Not at This Stage
2.4.3. The Reference Conditions Concept: Often Demonized, Still Widely Used and Indeed Needed
2.5. Measuring the Objectives: Indices
2.5.1. Some Pitfalls and the VF Potential Illustrated through the IQM
- It clearly separates (Figure 8) the objective measurement exercise (feeding the indicators) from subjective judgments (leading to indices, i.e., VFs), thus having the advantage of factual information whilst ensuring a much more transparent and understandable process.
- In order to build an evaluation index, ‘subjectivity’ is unavoidable as it directly expresses the perception of a person, stakeholder or social group. Nonetheless, with the VF based approach subjectivity is confined within a very recognizable and transparent step of the process, i.e., the construction of a multi-attribute VF (for which, most often, one simply builds a set of much simpler scalar VFs and then elicits preferences to obtain a well-defined set of weights). A sensitivity analysis can then be performed in a straightforward fashion.
- The VF approach theoretically allows the production of an internally coherent index, while, on the contrary, this is not ensured at all when a scoring system is adopted. Concretely speaking, this requirement is in fact hard to meet, but at least adopting a VF represents a first step on the way towards this, provided suitable techniques are adopted to build it.
- Lastly, this approach is more robust conceptually, much simpler to develop, communicate and understand, and as such it is definitely more straightforward and “democratic”.
2.5.2. The Mathematical Structure of an Evaluation Index
3. Proposal for an Adaptive, Pragmatic Approach to Planning
3.1. Objective Nature (Block 2 and Related)
- Similitude: in several cases, perhaps only for some components, it is possible to assume a similitude with (rare) pristine reaches of similar typology in a qualitative or even quantitative fashion (through statistical models, for instance as done for fish population in ). Hindcasting approaches such as those of  or  that look for a statistical link (regression) between riverine ecosystem attributes against a group of fixed factors (natural characteristics) and factors (“stressors”) affected anthropogenically, like land use, seem an attractive option; the idea is that one does not know what was the pristine state, but at least can infer what (improved) biological status would occur once stressors were to be neutralized. This approach, however, as pointed out by its authors, must be used only within the boundaries of the empirical database adopted. It cannot be used to extrapolate a status not observed. Furthermore, it cannot be used in our case because we are defining Reference Conditions in a way that no empirical value of the regressors actually displays in the current world. Moreover, present conditions may have been affected by some “ecological catastrophe”, for instance a widespread invasion by alien species, so that some native species may have already completely disappeared (but witnessed by historical documents) and cannot show up in the regression database. Finally, the human factors affecting the ecological status are very many and it is more than probable that the regression exercise may fail to capture some key issues. Because of one or more of these reasons, the hindcasting approach, if used for estimating the RC, might hence lead to a biased result. Nevertheless, when the DB is very wide (e.g., for lakes, ) and results robust, this technique offers a valuable possibility.
- River history: in order to speculate how the river “would be today”, it is very useful to “filter” historical anthropogenic alterations. With this aim, it is key to understand how the situation has evolved starting from a status pre-dating significant anthropogenic impacts. This may be easily achieved for instance in Australia or New Zealand, but also elsewhere, e.g., in millenary China (see the extremely interesting paper by ) and in a country like Italy, even if so much impacted by a never ending succession of waves of civilization and barbarism. It is sufficient to remind ourselves of the deep transformations occurring since the mid-1800s—resulting from the important changes in land use due to industrialization—and then in the mid-1900s, following the construction of dams and defense works in the territory (levees, riprap embankments), as well as the practice of sediment mining for use as construction material (e.g., ). A very important first step is hence to reconstruct the “river history” through a schematic that shows the sequence of events related to all relevant causal factors (floods, dam construction, sediment mining, earthquakes, fires,) with the corresponding time evolution of the river state. On this basis, it is then possible to work out an “interpretative theory” that captures and highlights the key causal factors and processes (an example was proposed in ). This exercise takes advantage of aerial photographs (more recently, satellite and UAV images), as well as maps, reports of old travelers, historical pictures, archeological findings, geomorphic and vegetation evidence (dendrochronology; see, for instance, ), etc. It can be observed that a similar effort is always implicitly required by methodologies like the IDRAIM-IQM of [32,51];
- Scientific knowledge: basic knowledge of fluvial geomorphology, hydrology, hydraulics and ecology and current modelling capabilities, particularly for reconstructing the water regime, can be used at least in a qualitative fashion. A simulation model representing the current situation “with uses and works” and “altered land use”, if well calibrated and validated, can be a means to reconstruct the natural regime, particularly if fed with a reconstructed land use and climate, once all works and uses are removed from the scheme.
3.2. Fundamental Objectives (Block 1)
- (N) Natural value of the river (to be maximized): This is the nominal main objective of River Restoration actions and is at the center of the discussion developed in the previous paragraphs.
- (R) Hydro-morphological Risk (to be minimized): a combination of hazard from flooding and geomorphic fluvial dynamics (normal or residual associated with events superior to the design event or with the potential work collapse), of exposed value (current and future, the latter being usually higher when the realization of protection works creates a psychological climate of “safety”) and vulnerability (possibly reduced by preventive interventions or real time management strategies).
- (D) Social Disturbance (to be minimized): this includes all what disrupts, perturbs or merely annoys existing social settings, such as:
- loss of land value because of land-use changes (e.g., new constraints, de-classification of zones)
- reduction of water availability owing to different uses (typically to fulfil more demanding ecological requirements of the hydrological regime)
- relocation of particularly exposed (or interfering) buildings and infrastructures
- imposition of payment schemes for environmental services on some social groups (e.g., upstream stakeholders are compensated when they allow the river to flood/wander on their properties so as to reduce downstream damages).
- (S) Environmental Services (to be maximized or, at least, kept at current level): among these Water supply, Hydroelectric production, Effluent disposal, Support to navigation, Availability of space for anthropogenic activities (agriculture, urban settlements, other infrastructures), Recreation, Aesthetic appreciation, Cultural legacy or identity.
- (C) Total Costs (to be minimized): investment plus Operation, Management, periodic Replacement (OMR) and Dismantling.
- (E) Negative Externalities (to be minimized): for example, flood peak increment downstream, pollutants load exported from a sub-basin, excess/deficit of solid load conveyed in a reach (which might rebound, even upstream, because of regressive erosion).
3.2.1. Other Objectives and Criteria
3.2.2. Measuring the Objectives: Indices and Prediction Tools
3.3. A Key Decision: The Fluvial Space
3.3.1. The Fluvial Space Output of a Multi-Objective Problem
3.3.2. Leitbild after the Multi-Objective Choice
3.4. Adaptive Approach
3.5. Other Key Pragmatic Inputs for Decision Making
- the identification and strict protection of preservation & conservation zones on the basis of their current high environmental value (health and peculiarity), including the zones from which their configuration depends upon (e.g., their mountain catchments). This is in general only possible through delicate participatory, extensive work with local communities and the establishment of working management schemes such as the Payment for Environmental Services or “Water Funds” (e.g., );
- the application of the evaluation criteria and methods discussed here to those rivers/basins consciously targeted for exploitation or for the development of impacting projects
- the adoption of the best design/implementation practices offered by the River Restoration corpus (see www.ecrr.org, accessed on 6 May 2021, for instance), including newer techniques for water management like the wide-ranging family of Nature Based Solutions applied to drainage and treatment;
- in the altered zones, the prioritization of ecosystem elements at different scales (river stretches, corridors, hydraulic annexes, basins) to be recovered, enhanced or restored. High on the list are those elements with a significant potential ecological value (today possibly remarkably diminished) and with a good recovery capacity, but also, conversely, those elements whose degradation has reached unacceptable levels (e.g., highly polluted sites).
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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Nardini, A.G.C.; Conte, G. River Management & Restoration: What River Do We Wish for. Water 2021, 13, 1336. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13101336
Nardini AGC, Conte G. River Management & Restoration: What River Do We Wish for. Water. 2021; 13(10):1336. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13101336Chicago/Turabian Style
Nardini, Andrea Gianni Cristoforo, and Giulio Conte. 2021. "River Management & Restoration: What River Do We Wish for" Water 13, no. 10: 1336. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13101336