There is a clear need for identifying simple relations between changes in flow and ecosystem response for the improved management of rivers and the implementation of the EU WFD. Despite this, it appears very difficult to identify widely applicable relations between hydrological/hydraulic parameters and ecosystem response, and one specific water flow target/methodology could hardly be found nor recommended. The review of management practices of setting environmental/minimum flows in selected European countries, rather revealed that a number of approaches are used, most of them, however, ending up in minimum flow/environmental flows in the range of 5-10% of mean annual flow. The authors would propose to use the building block methodology (BBM) as a conceptual framework for setting flow targets in regulated rivers. This would support the overall idea of the EU WFD of introducing ecosystem-based management with stakeholder involvement. This is in line with recommendations given to authorities in e.g. the UK where trials are currently undertaken. The authors believe the use of hydrological/hydraulic analysis still have an unleashed potential in the environmental management of regulated rivers in general and related to the EU WFD in particular, possibly supporting rapid assessment ecological status in rivers in the future.
- Despite escalating conflict over fresh water, recent years have witnessed a growing realisation that human society must modify its behaviour to ensure long-term ecological vitality of riverine ecosystems. In response, ecologists have been increasingly asked to guide instream flow management by providing ‘environmental flow’ prescriptions for sustaining the ecological integrity of riverine systems.
- Environmental flows are typically discussed in the context of water releases from dams and water allocation for extraction (such as for urban use or irrigation), where there is general agreement that rivers need to exhibit some resemblance of natural flow variability necessary to support a functioning ecosystem. Although productive dialogue continues on how best to define environmental flows, these discussions have been focused primarily on water quantity without explicit consideration of many components of water quality, including water temperature – a fundamental ecological variable.
- Many human activities on the landscape have modified riverine thermal regimes. In particular, many dams have modified thermal regimes by selectively releasing hypolimnetic (cold) or epilimnetic (warm) water from thermally stratified reservoirs to the detriment of entire assemblages of native organisms. Despite the global scope of thermal alteration by dams, the prevention or mitigation of thermal degradation has not entered the conversation when environmental flows are discussed.
- Here, we propose that a river’s thermal regime is a key, yet poorly acknowledged, component of environmental flows. This study explores the concept of the natural thermal regime, reviews how dam operations modify thermal regimes, and discusses the ecological implications of thermal alteration for freshwater ecosystems. We identify five major challenges for incorporating water temperatures into environmental flow assessments, and describe future research opportunities and some alternative approaches for confronting those challenges.
- We encourage ecologists and water managers to broaden their perspective on environmental flows to include both water quantity and quality with respect to restoring natural thermal regimes. We suggest that scientific research should focus on the comprehensive characterisation of seasonality and variability in stream temperatures, quantification of the temporal and spatial impacts of dam operations on thermal regimes and clearer elucidation of the relative roles of altered flow and temperature in shaping ecological patterns and processes in riverine ecosystems. Future investigations should also concentrate on using this acquired knowledge to identify the ‘manageable’ components of the thermal regime, and develop optimisation models that evaluate management trade-offs and provide a range of optimal environmental flows that meet both ecosystem and human needs for fresh water.
Many river restoration projects are focusing on restoring environmental flow regimes to improve ecosystem health in rivers that have been developed for water supply, hydropower generation, flood control, navigation, and other purposes. In efforts to prevent future ecological damage, water supply planners in some parts of the world are beginning to address the water needs of river ecosystems proactively by reserving some portion of river flows for ecosystem support. These restorative and protective actions require development of scientifically credible estimates of environmental flow needs. This paper describes an adaptive, inter-disciplinary, science-based process for developing environmental flow recommendations. It has been designed for use in a variety of water management activities, including flow restoration projects, and can be tailored according to available time and resources for determining environmental flow needs. The five-step process includes: (1) an orientation meeting; (2) a literature review and summary of existing knowledge about flow-dependent biota and ecological processes of concern; (3) a workshop to develop ecological objectives and initial flow recommendations, and identify key information gaps; (4) implementation of the flow recommendations on a trial basis to test hypotheses and reduce uncertainties; and (5) monitoring system response and conducting further research as warranted. A range of recommended flows are developed for the low flows in each month, high flow pulses throughout the year, and floods with targeted inter-annual frequencies. We describe an application of this process to the Savannah River, in which the resultant flow recommendations were incorporated into a comprehensive river basin planning process conducted by the Corps of Engineers, and used to initiate the adaptive management of Thurmond Dam.