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Multiple Pressures in River Basin Management

April 20, 2016

Workshop organiser Rafaela Schinegger. Image: Jörg Strackbein

Last week in Vienna, a group of around 60 river basin managers, Water Framework Directive officials, European Environment Agency representatives, external experts and MARS aquatic scientists met to discuss the key challenges for freshwater management and policy across Europe.

Central to the two days of discussions was the challenge of multiple pressures: the often unpredictable interactions between individual pressures on freshwaters, such as pollution, floods, droughts and river bank alterations.  Despite growing awareness of the importance of multiple pressures, their joint impacts on aquatic ecosystems are not well understood, and as a result they are poorly reflected in existing River Basin Management Plans – the framework through which the Water Framework Directive is implemented in Europe.

There was rich science-management dialogue at the meeting, titled ‘Multiple Pressures in River Basin Management‘, which took place at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management – a MARS partner.  The MARS project is just past its halfway point, and the meeting gave the opportunity for water managers and policy makers to help shape the project’s research and outputs to ensure they are relevant and useful in practice.


Attendees discussed how the impacts of multiple pressures might be assessed and mitigated in River Basin Management, and worked together to scope possible management tools which use scientific data to aid decision making.  These cross-disciplinary dialogues were timed to help inform the implementation of mitigation and restoration measures in the current cycle of the Water Framework Directive across Europe, as well as the planning of the next cycle starting in 2021.  The outputs from the meeting will form the basis of a guidance document written by MARS scientists for river managers seeking to mitigate the effects of multiple pressures.

On the first morning, delegates heard from a number of water managers and policy makers. Speaking via video-link from Brussels, Jorge Romero Rodriguez of DG Environment outlined the key challenge for freshwater management in Europe. He outlined the tension between use and conservation of water resources, and the need for management measures that help freshwaters reach the “good status” target in the WFD.  Rodriguez put forward the DPSIR framework as a tool for assessing and managing the health of freshwater ecosystems under multiple pressures.


Image: Jörg Strackbein

Veronika Koller-Kreimel of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (BMLFUW) and Raimund Mair of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) each gave insights about the challenges of multiple pressures in their river basins.

Koller-Kreimel outlined that hydromorphological pressures – particularly hydropower constructions – are the main cause of falling ecological status in Austrian rivers.  Mair discussed how the Danube basin is extremely variable in terms of pressures and management, with nutrient pollution and flow fragmentation affecting much of the catchment, and the need for cross-boundary co-ordination of management initiatives.  In the Danube basin, the key pressures are monitored under a framework, which focuses on ‘Significant Water Management Issues’ according to the Water Framework Directive.


Next, key members of the MARS project spoke to attendees about their ongoing aquatic scientific research.  Project leader Daniel Hering stated that in the 1970s and 80s, the identification of a single, strong pressure – organic pollution – allowed for water managers to gain wide public and political support to restore freshwaters by improving sanitation.

However, in the present day, we face a complex mix of pressures, with uncertainty over their interactions and impacts – making it more difficult to communicate the need for appropriate measures.  In fact, there are many pressure combinations where we don’t fully understand their interactions, nor the trajectories of ecological recovery from their impacts following restoration.

Hering emphasised that there are missing links between assessing multiple pressures and managing them through policy measures such as the Water Framework Directive.  Relatedly, Hering identified the need for better linkages between monitoring biological quality elements in an ecosystem, and quantifying the ecosystem services it provides, suggesting that, “people are more often interested in the ecosystem services provided by freshwater rather than in a single stonefly species that the river can support.”  


Daniel Hering on ‘the good new times, the bad new times’ for European freshwaters. Image: Jörg Strackbein

Laurence Carvalho outlined the four most common pressure combinations in European lakes, all of which were interactions involving nutrient stress: with extreme temperatures; extreme rainfall or drought; flooding; and changes to lake morphology.  Carvalho suggested that a key element of conceptual models seeking to understand the ecological dynamics of stressed lakes was to make sure that we can understand individual waterbodies, as well as river basin dynamics and overall European stressor patterns.

Stefan Schmutz emphasised how MARS is designed to help develop mitigation strategies and decision support tools for multiple pressures in European freshwaters, and that it is important to consider not only pressure combinations, but also impact combinations – in other words the effects of multiple pressures. He demonstrated a user-friendly tool showing how two individual pressures could affect the ecological status of fish in a river, and the importance of threshold responses to small changes in pressure.

Christian Feld began his short talk with the provocative comment “European water bodies are not well.”  Feld outlined the potential for an online ‘web doctor’ for water body management, where river basin managers could input data on multiple pressures and be given guidance on the potential effectiveness of different management approaches in mitigating their effects.


Questions from the floor. Image: Jörg Strackbein

After this set of talks, questions were posed to MARS scientists from the floor.  A key theme that emerged was the need for clear and accessible tools, which link monitoring data on multiple pressures to ecological status, and give managers an indication of the potential success of different measures.

An important consideration here is how the complexity and uncertainty of our current understanding on multiple pressures can translate into straightforward management and policy advice.  Accordingly, this was noted as a key consideration for the next two years of MARS research on impacts of multiple pressures: not only understanding the underlying science, but shaping research outputs in ways that are policy and management relevant.


World Cafe discussions. Image: Jörg Strackbein

After lunch, the participants were split into four groups in which to undertake World Cafe discussions.  The World Cafe format is a way of facilitating dialogue within large groups.  Each small group discussed how the key themes of the workshop – the challenges of addressing multiple pressures in River Basin Management planning; the future needs and solutions for more effective planning and management – related to their own work across Europe.

The following morning, the groups reported back with a range of grounded (and sometimes provocative) insights towards a set of guiding principles for multiple pressure management.  These were then built upon in a panel discussion including Peter Kristensen of the European Environment Agency, Anne Lyche Solheim of MARS and the Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Stephan von Keitz of the Hessian Ministry of Environment, Germany and Veronika Koller-Kreimel from the Austrian ministry.


Panel discussions. Image: Jörg Strackbein

A number of key themes from the workshop emerged in these discussions.  First, that river basin managers are used to dealing with many pressures, but not always the combined effects of multiple pressures.  The challenge here is for scientific research to suggest solutions to managers faced with complex pressure interactions in a world with a changing climate, as well as increasing demands for food, energy and massive urbanisation. How can water be protected given these massive global changes?

Second, as previously stated, there is a need for management tools which link pressures, status, measures and services, and allow for information on the benefits of management to reach the highest political levels.  As Veronika Koller-Kreimel put it “such tools need to be as simple as possible, but as complex as necessary”.

Third, many river basin managers advocated that such tools should function at appropriate scales: in particular, for individual water bodies.  Whilst ongoing MARS models of multiple pressures across river basins and the European continent are extremely useful for identifying large-scale trends and patterns, managers need small-scale diagnostic and monitoring tools to aid their multiple pressure mitigation.  Fourth, there was general agreement that biological pressures (such as invasive species) should be given more attention within MARS research.


Science-management dialogue. Image: Jörg Strackbein

Fifth, there is the need for better co-operation and sharing of knowledge about multiple pressures and ecological status, for example using already existing data generated by previous European Union projects.  As Stefan Schmutz suggested, “we know a lot about freshwater ecosystems, but not one of us has the full knowledge.”  A key challenge here is to present information on managing multiple pressures in a digestible way to better integrate their management into River Basin Management Plans within the Water Framework Directive.

Sixth, and related, an important recurring discussion centered on the question: “what is good ecological status?”  In short, if we’re looking to communicate the need for freshwater management towards good ecological status to policy makers and the public, we need to be able to explain what it looks like and why it is important.  Many people accept a ‘shifting baseline’ of ecological health, the acceptable level of which can drop from generation to generation.  It was generally agreed that better communication of ‘good ecological status’ could help frame and legitimate freshwater management measures to wider audiences and sectors responsible for the pressures (e.g. agriculture, hydropower, urbanisation).

Seventh, another related theme that emerged from the discussions was the need for case studies where multiple pressures management had provided clear, positive impacts on ecological health and status.  Such good practice examples have the potential not only to guide management, but to help communicate the importance of why it is important.


Meeting attendees. Image: Jörg Strackbein

In summing up, workshop moderator Jan Sendzimir provided an important insight to tie many of the discussions together.  He noted that ecological systems often ‘get better’ slower than the rate of change in political cycles.  To make real improvements to stressed freshwater ecosystems, we need long-term political co-operation across governments and better dialogue with the sectors responsible for the pressures.

Whilst this meeting was rich with discussions on improving the health and status of Europe’s freshwaters, there is still much work to be done.

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