Restoration of Europe’s Great Rivers

February 6, 2014

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“Europe’s fluvial highways are becoming the test bed for conservation biologist Edward O. Wilson’s dream that the 21st century should be ‘the era of restoration ecology’” – Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360

Europe’s rivers are a mess. After centuries of dams, levees, straightening, and pollution, the 2000 European Union’s Water Framework Directive required “that all rivers be returned to a ‘good status’ by 2015,” writes Fred Pearce in an article for Yale Environment 360. Pearce quotes one expert who “estimates that 50 percent of rivers in Germany, 30 percent in Norway and 70 percent in Belgium can never have their ecosystem processes restored…So the challenge is often to recreate rivers that recognize humanity’s needs.”

Restoring rivers is not easy, but great strides are being made in this praiseworthy undertaking. Britain has “promised to restore some 1,500 kilometers of rivers,” and of their 2,700 proposed projects has already completed 1,500. Spain is removing man-made obstacles on the Duero, and the dams are coming down on France’s Loire. Denmark is returning marshlands to the mouth of its Skjern River, and the Danube is losing levees and dams in Austria, Germany, Romania, and Ukraine.

So how does one restore a river?

There are many different avenues: “it can mean simply taking some forgotten stream out of a sewer pipe or concrete culvert,” Pearce explains. Europe is not alone in this endeavor. Our very own Katherine Baer in her blog post “Bringing Creeks Back to Life,” writes that “it’s exciting to hear about Raleigh’s interest in ‘daylighting’ some currently buried streams as part of downtown redevelopment and development of a riverwalk.” Other creeks and rivers have been daylighted in Kalamazoo, MI and Yonkers, NY, just to name a few.

In London, the city has implemented new sewage treatment to clean up one of the most “famously filthy rivers.” Salmon and other fish have returned, but battling daily sewage is still an ongoing issue. In addition to cleaning up pollution, natural flows need to be restored to Europe’s waterways. In the past humans have wanted straight rivers, and installed “[d]ams, weirs, and other barriers” in order to “tame” the mighty rivers. A major component of river restoration today is to remove as many of these structures as possible in order to restore natural river flows and riparian habitat. In Sweden, restoration experts and planners are even “dumping trees in the river” to slow down water currents and provide organic material for fish and other wildlife.

Unfortunately, the very man-made barriers many are trying to pull down are actually in construction in other areas of Europe. Poland has altered 16,000 km of river area in the past five years alone, and the popularity of hydroelectric power as a source of alternate energy is continuing to popularize dams and “small-scale hydro plants.”

Moving forward, Europe and the world must walk the tightrope between our need for alternative sources of energy and the importance of the natural flows of our rivers. There may be challenges, but there are wonderful successes as well, including climate change protection, ecological, and human health. In Austria they are recreating the natural bank of the upper Danube, and already “Kingfishers are returning, and wild bees and birds like the little ring plover.”

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