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Putting ecology back into river restoration


An ambitious plan is under way in the ecological community to agree a set of standards for ecologically successful river restoration. The plan is being led by the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology, which this month is publishing a special profile on river restoration. Opening the debate is a paper by 22 leading US river ecologists proposing five criteria for ecologically successful river restoration. Their aim is to arrive at an agreed set of standards which would eventually be endorsed by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Although billions of dollars are spent on river restoration projects worldwide, little agreement exists on how their success is measured. According to lead author Dr Margaret Palmer of the University of Maryland: “Given the rapid rate of global degradation of fresh waters, and the fact that river and stream restoration has become a booming enterprise, it is time to agree on what constitutes successful river and stream restoration.”

Palmer and her colleagues say that the success of river restoration should be judged according to five criteria: a guiding image; improving ecosystems; increasing resilience; doing no lasting harm; and completing an ecological assessment.

The first step should be articulating a “guiding image” describing the ecologically healthy river that could exist at a given site. The second step should be to demonstrate that there have been measurable changes towards the guiding image, such as larger fish populations and clearer water. Palmer et al stress that restoration success should not be viewed as an all-or-nothing, single endpoint, but as an adaptive process where small improvements build up and lessons are learned from any failures. The third criteria for successful river restoration is to create hydrological, geomorphological and ecological conditions that allow the river to be a resilient, self-sustaining system. The fourth criteria is to do no lasting harm. “For example, a channel modification project should minimise loss of native vegetation during river reconstruction, and should avoid the fish spawning season for construction work,” Palmer explains. The final criteria is ecological assessment.

According to Palmer: “It is critical that the broad restoration community, including funding agencies, practitioners and citizen restoration groups, adopt criteria for defining and assessing ecological success in restoration. Standards are needed because progress in the science and practice of river restoration has been hampered by the lack of agreed upon criteria for judging ecological success.”

The debate is timely given the many waterfront regeneration projects under way worldwide. But, Palmer argues, many such schemes lack an ecological dimension. “Riverfront revitalisation projects many be successful in increasing economic and social activity near a river, but can constrain natural processes of the river and floodplain. Projects labelled restoration successes should not be assumed to be ecological successes,” Palmer says.

Several other papers on river restoration, including two responses to Palmer et al’s paper, are included in this issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Becky Allen | alfa
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