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River Futures: An Integrative Scientific Approach to River Repair

River Futures: An Integrative Scientific Approach to River Repair

by Gary J. Brierley

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Across much of the industrialized world, rivers that were physically transformed and ecologically ruined to facilitate industrial and agricultural development are now the focus of restoration and rehabilitation efforts. River Futures discusses the emergence of this new era of river repair and documents a comprehensive biophysical framework for river science and


Across much of the industrialized world, rivers that were physically transformed and ecologically ruined to facilitate industrial and agricultural development are now the focus of restoration and rehabilitation efforts. River Futures discusses the emergence of this new era of river repair and documents a comprehensive biophysical framework for river science and management. The book considers what can be done to maximize prospects for improving river health while maintaining or enhancing the provision of ecosystem services over the next 50 to 100 years. It provides a holistic overview of considerations that underpin the use of science in river management, emphasizing cross-disciplinary understanding that builds on a landscape template. The book
•frames the development of integrative river science and its application to river rehabilitation programs
•develops a coherent set of guiding principles with which to approach integrative river science
•considers the application of cross-disciplinary thinking in river rehabilitation experiences from around the world
•examines the crossover between science and management, outlining issues that must be addressed to promote healthier river futures

Case studies explore practical applications in different parts of the world, highlighting approaches to the use of integrative river science, measures of success, and steps that could be taken to improve performance in future efforts.

River Futures offers a positive, practical, and constructive focus that directly addresses the major challenge of a new era of river conservation and rehabilitation—that of bringing together the diverse and typically discipline-bound sets of knowledge and practices that are involved in repairing rivers. It is a valuable resource for anyone involved in river restoration and management, including restorationists, scientists, managers, and policymakers, as well as students.

Editorial Reviews

The Chronicle Review
"Mentioned in Review Pages. "
Journal of Environmental Quality

"River Futures is an unequivocally positive book with a positive message, looking forward and trying to provide solutions."
Book News Inc.

"Focusing on the future rather than the past, an eco-system perspective, and integrating biological and social interests are among the strategies that these earth and environmental scientists apply to restoring rivers that have been damaged by human activity. Most of the contributors, and most of the case studies, are from Australia and New Zealand, but Europe, Japan, South Africa, and Colorado are also represented."

Book Reviews

"In River Futures, Brierley and Fryirs, along with an international team of authors, provide a vision of what river rehabilitation is and how it should be managed."
Abstracts of Public Administration

"Subjects covered in this collection include: the importance of having a future focus for river rehabilitation, a shift in the science and management of river systems, application of carefully targeted measures to monitor the conditions of river systems, and dedication to the concept of healthier river futures."
Journal of Environmental Quality - P. M. Haygarth

"River Futures is an unequivocally positive book with a positive message, looking forward and trying to provide solutions."

"The editors...make a strong case that we should focus on what we hope our rivers will look like in the future, rather than trying to return them to what they looked like in the past."
Natural Areas Journal

"In each section, multiple collaborators provide unique perspectives and research examples, mainly from Australia, to explain current river management challenges to raise awareness of the truly multi-disciplinary approaches that will be needed to achieve lasting river health and the future....Overall, the book has useful discussions and descriptions of approaches that will help all readers. There will certainly be a benefit to local decision-makers who are on the socio-political front lines of river management decisions, as they will gain a better understanding of the scientific context of river management."
Reference & Research Book News

"Focusing on the future rather than the past, an eco-system perspective, and integrating biological and social interests are among the strategies that these earth and environmental scientists apply to restoring rivers that have been damaged by human activity. Most of the contributors, and most of the case studies, are from Australia and New Zealand, but Europe, Japan, South Africa, and Colorado are also represented."

Product Details

Island Press
Publication date:
Science Practice Ecological Restoration
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Barnes & Noble
File size:
9 MB

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River Futures

An Integrative Scientific Approach to River Repair

By Gary J. Brierley, Kirstie A. Fryirs


Copyright © 2008 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-105-4


Moves Toward an Era of River Repair


Despite our dependence on healthy ecosystems, society has made the decision to continue life as usual until a loss of valued goods and services is realized; then, society will expect and rely on science to clean up the mess and make it look natural.

Hilderbrand et al. 2005, 1

Rivers are part of society's lifeblood. We live along these natural arteries of the landscape, and they provide fundamentally important services: ready access to potable water, an easy means of transportation, fertile and replenished lands readily irrigated for agricultural use, and a reliable source of renewable energy, among many other applications. In many parts of the world, cultural associations are tied intimately to these biophysical and economic values. Throughout history, many peoples have developed a strong emotive and psychological connection to river systems. Rivers are also extremely important in ecological terms. Researchers estimate that, although aquatic ecosystems occupy only 0.8 percent of the surface area of the planet, 12 percent of all animal species live in fresh water (Abramovitz 1996).

Despite these values and associations, ill-conceived, conflicting, and unsustainable practices litter the history of human exploitation of land and water resources. The damage inflicted upon natural ecosystems is no longer in dispute (Boon et al. 2000; Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005), and there is severe pressure on the ecosystem services that we and future generations ultimately depend on (Daily 1997). Efforts to sustain biodiverse and functional river ecosystems represent one of the greatest environmental challenges for the twenty-first century (Bernhardt et al. 2006; Dudgeon et al. 2006).

The damage inflicted upon river systems, and prospects for river recovery, vary markedly across the globe. In environmental terms, there is no turning back the clock to former conditions and relationships—though we may be able to slow or reverse degradation trends. In most instances, reinventing the past simply isn't practical, possible, or desirable. In engaging with prospects for river futures, we need to move beyond the rose-tinted impressions of the past that are framed in terms of idyllic rural lifestyles and notionally harmonious human-environmental relationships. Such unrealistic images convey a misleading sense of former practices, the impacts of which were diluted by lower population densities and the capacity of societies to abandon unsustainable practices at any given locality by simply moving elsewhere (and proceeding to do the same thing, until "collapse" ensued once more; e.g., Diamond 2005; Wright 2005).

Across much of the Western world, rivers that were physically transformed and ecologically ruined to facilitate industrial and agricultural developments are now receiving increasing societal demands for rehabilitation (e.g., Postel and Richter 2003; Wohl 2004; our preference for the term "rehabilitation," rather than "restoration," is discussed later in this chapter). Significant investment in large-scale rehabilitation initiatives has triggered notable recovery of many aquatic ecosystems, such as Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades in the United States and the Danube and Rhine rivers in Europe. Protection of high-value ecological remnants is now a key focus for many national and international agencies. Perhaps the greatest source of hope for healthier river futures, however, lies in the growth and success of small-scale rehabilitation initiatives that promote river recovery and reconnect local communities to their river systems. The process of river repair is underway.

Prospects for ecosystem recovery reflect societal values and the priority we place upon such issues. Among other factors, the amount that society is prepared to pay for such applications (i.e., what is socially acceptable), and societal attitudes toward maintenance and upkeep of rehabilitation measures, are major influences on these prospects. The quest for healthy and sustainable river futures reflects our capacity to develop harmonious relationships between human values and environmental needs (Wang 2006).

The emerging process of river repair extends across managerial, societal, and scientific dimensions. A paradigm shift is underway, as we realize the unsustainable consequences of past actions, and we adjust our perspectives to meet the reframed perspectives of this new era. In this book, we examine four key attributes of this emerging approach to river management:

1. The importance of a future focus for setting visions for river rehabilitation, and challenges faced in developing crossdisciplinary understanding with which to approach the process of river repair (part I).

2. The development of integrative, crossdisciplinary river science with which to facilitate the process of river repair (part II).

3. The primacy of regional and catchment-scale considerations as determinants of differing priorities and strategies that shape river futures in various parts of the world (part III).

4. The development of adaptive management frameworks that respect the inherent diversity, variability, and complexity of river systems (part IV).

In this chapter, we outline various components of the shift in thinking that underpins the emergence of the era of river repair. We then highlight the importance of coherent scientific information with which to guide this process. Finally, we define several key concepts used in this book, and provide an overview of the structure of the book as a whole.

The Emerging Process of River Repair

Access to, and use of, water resources has profoundly influenced the emergence of industrial society. In meeting societal needs, demands for guaranteed water supply for agricultural, domestic, navigational, and industrial applications were addressed with limited regard for ecosystem values (Hillman and Brierley 2005). The dominant mindsets were security of supply and minimization of risk. Notional progress through development in this era of "command and control" management brought about pervasive modification of environmental systems (Holling and Meffe 1996). Some of the key factors that affected rivers included the construction of dams and irrigation schemes, channelization and flood control programs, and a myriad of activities that sought to make drylands wetter and wetlands drier.

Although industrial society was not oblivious to the environmental consequences of its actions, it took some time to shift priorities away from the sole concern for economic considerations and toward an effort to address the health and well-being of society and natural ecosystems. However, initial attempts at repair emphasized issues that directly affected humans, such as water quality and disease (i.e., sanitation facilities). Eventually, this was viewed as an incomplete solution—one that ultimately fails to fix the problem.

The failure of management systems to deliver environmental goods, or to remedy environmental harm, renders the command and control approach vulnerable—if not obsolete—and open to replacement by new ways of thinking. Such transitions, if and when they occur, are the result of push and pull factors. "Push factors" refer to the apparent failure of traditional science to explain or predict controls on ecosystem functionality, and consequently a failure of management intervention. In part, this reflects the failure of reductionist, discipline-bound knowledge to adequately inform policy and management, thereby failing to reverse the pervasive degradation of aquatic ecosystems. Pull factors include demands from voters and influential community members for greater emphasis on environmental protection and a more substantive say in natural resource management.

In many parts of the world, a fundamental shift in river management practice is underway, marking a move away from a deterministic focus that endeavors to control nature and toward an ecosystem perspective that strives to work with nature, viewing humans as part of the ecosystem (table 1.1, figure 1.1). The emerging "ecosystem approach" to river management strives to establish healthy, productive, and resilient ecosystems that are able to recover from, rather than resist, disturbance. This new approach views ecosystem values and human needs side by side, placing biodiversity management and the sustainability agenda at the heart of the era of river repair.

Early developmental approaches to river management endeavored to meets society's needs through the application of engineering skills to create stable, predictable, and reliable channels. These imperatives were met with considerable flair. However, a suite of unintentional, largely unconsidered consequences ensued, inflicting enormous damage to aquatic ecosystems. Attempts to redress the environmental shortcomings of former practices through discipline-bound engineering applications have often further exacerbated the problems. A wider, crossdisciplinary knowledge base is required to inform the process of river repair.

A shift in scientific practice and uptake has accompanied the reframed needs of the process of river repair. Two interrelated trends are particularly noteworthy: the move beyond discipline-bound thinking, and an increased emphasis upon the use of scientific insight to address practical, real-world issues. As noted by Ziman (2000), most practical problems do not emerge ready-made in the middle of existing research specialities—they are essentially crossdisciplinary. Ecosystems do not operate within the boundaries we place on understanding through discipline-based teaching and learning. Failure to integrate the complex interplay of linkages across discipline boundaries constrains our capacity to deliver effective guidance to environmental managers. Fragmented science and/or management can only yield partial solutions. Informing political/social debate and stakeholder negotiations requires coherent scientific guidance. Meeting this new scientific agenda requires numerous adjustments in perspective. The critical responsibility of researchers is to merge conflicting perspectives, rather than expecting managers to do so.

Crossdisciplinary applications do not set out to replace or exclude traditional modes of research. Rather, these two approaches are complementary. Generating integrative knowledge requires the combined skills of specialists and integrators. In generating more holistic knowledge, effective use must be made of available discipline-bound insights. However, collaborative research is required to address the big questions that lie outside the comfort zone and conservatism of discipline-bound thinking. Through effective cooperation, parties that see different aspects of a problem are able to explore their differences constructively and search for (and implement) plans and solutions that go beyond their individual visions of the possible (Morrison et al. 2004). Such collegial initiatives should not compromise the capacity for individual endeavor. Indeed, avoiding the limitations of conformist "groupthink" is imperative. As noted by Wilson (1998, 269): "We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically, and make important decisions wisely."

In the process of integration, researchers must move beyond personal biases, prejudices, and the inherent suspicions that disciplinary groups seem to hold of each other (Palmer and Bernhardt 2006). Recognition of diverse approaches within disciplines and avoidance of stereotyping or misrepresentation are key points of departure for crossdisciplinary practice (Pawson and Dovers 2003). Adoption of a whole-of-system approach at the outset, rather than retrospectively striving to connect threads between disciplines, provides the most effective way to promote integrative thinking.

To enhance prospects for environmental repair, researchers must work with managers, stakeholders, and decision-makers to address the most important questions, rather than focusing their attention on those questions to which they can readily provide answers (Rogers 2006). As noted by Ravetz (1999, 652): "The management of complex natural and social systems as if they were simple scientific exercises has brought us to our present mixture of triumph and peril. We are now witnessing the emergence of a new approach to problem-solving strategies in which the role of science, still essential, is now appreciated in its full context of the uncertainties of natural systems and the relevance of human values."

Funtowitz and Ravetz (1991) use the term "post-normal" science to describe these adjustments in scientific practice. These developments reflect enhanced appreciation of the methodological, societal, and ethical issues raised by scientific activities and their application (Chalmers 1999). Post-normal practice inverts the traditional opposition of "hard" facts and "soft" values. Decisions are "hard" in every sense, but the scientific inputs are irremediably "soft," as facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high, and decisions urgent (Funtowitz and Ravetz 1991). Such applications recognize that science is neither value-free nor ethically neutral.

The Emergence of Integrative River Science

Ultimate success in river management depends implicitly upon our efforts to conceptualize river systems in a clear, systematic, and organized manner. In a sense, efforts to synthesize our knowledge of river systems revisit the proposal by Penck (1897) for discourse in "potamology" as the science of flowing waters. A fundamental shift in perspective lies at the heart of this process—that of seeing and conceptualizing river systems as dynamic wholes rather than static collections of parts. Rather than consider elements from ecology, geomorphology, hydrology, or aquatic geochemistry in isolation, integrative river science builds upon holistic crossdisciplinary analyses of aquatic ecosystems (all terms in italics are defined in table 1.2). While formal recognition of integrative river science is seldom stated explicitly, convergence of perspectives from differing disciplinary backgrounds is increasingly informally expressed. The emergence of notions such as riverscape, ecohydrology, ecohydraulics, and geodiversity is testimony to the adoption of more holistic approaches to river science.

In recent years there has been a remarkable convergence of thinking in the development and application of catchment-based scientific frameworks with a managerial focus, which have been used to conceptualize the structure and function of river systems (e.g., North America—Frissell et al. 1986; Naiman et al. 1992; Bohn and Kershner 2002; Europe—Petts and Amoros 1996; South Africa—Rogers and O'Keefe 2003; Australasia—Brierley and Fryirs 2005; Snelder and Biggs 2002). In noting the coherency of crossdisciplinary thinking in these frameworks, it is interesting to note their varying disciplinary origins, which extend across geomorphology, hydrology, and aquatic/terrestrial ecology. Inevitably, it's one thing to have these insights, but quite another to consider what we do with them!

Effective approaches to river management address concerns for the key drivers and relationships that determine ecosystem integrity for any given system. Such endeavors meaningfully frame the ecological integrity of the system in relation to its abiotic setting (i.e., its physical integrity; see figure 1.2). Abiotic interactions exert a direct influence upon the three-dimensional space, or habitat, in which river organisms live and complete their life processes. Biotic factors atop or within this template determine whether the physical habitat is viable for colonization, enabling flora and fauna to complete their life cycles. Measures of ecosystem functionality shape the viability of the aquatic habitat at any given locality. In framing management initiatives to maintain ecosystem integrity, measures must target those elements of ecological resilience that are vulnerable or under stress, striving to enhance the self-sustaining capacity of the system.


Excerpted from River Futures by Gary J. Brierley, Kirstie A. Fryirs. Copyright © 2008 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gary Brierley is a professor in the School of Geography, Geology, and Environmental Science at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Kirstie Fryirs is a lecturer in the Department of Physical Geography at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

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