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Environmental Flows Saving Rivers in the Third Millennium

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River Values and Threats

The Freshwater Biodiversity Crisis

Rivers and their associated floodplains, groundwater, and wetlands are in crisis. Globally they are the world's most damaged ecosystems, losing species at a rate that far outstrips the decline of biodiversity in terrestrial and marine systems (Dudgeon et al. 2006). A new synthesis of threats to the world's rivers (Vörösmarty et al. 2010) has found that over 83% of the land surface surrounding aquatic systems has been significantly influenced by the "human footprint." The stamp of human activities is manifest as widespread catchment disturbance, deforestation, water pollution, river corridor engineering, impoundments and water diversions, irrigation, extensive wetland drainage, groundwater depletion, habitat loss, and introduced species. Impoundments and depletion of river flows are the clearest sources of biodiversity threat in that they directly degrade and reduce river and floodplain habitat, with 65% of global river discharge and aquatic habitat under moderate to high threat. This threat level exceeds past estimates of human appropriation of accessible freshwater runoff and is approaching the 70% level anticipated by 2050 (Postel et al. 1996).

The worldwide pattern of anthropogenic threats to rivers documented by Vörösmarty et al. (2010) offers the most comprehensive accounting ever undertaken to explain why freshwater biodiversity is in a state of crisis. Estimates suggest that at least 10,000-20,000 freshwater species are extinct or at risk, largely from anthropogenic factors. Loss rates for freshwater biodiversity are believed to rival those of the Pleistocene-to-Holocene transition.

In 2002, Paul Crutzen suggested that the world has entered a new epoch-the Anthropocene-because humans dominate the biosphere and largely determine environmental quality (Zalasiewicz et al. 2008). Numerous correlative studies, experiments, and meta-analysis all point to human activities as the common factor in freshwater biodiversity decline. Given escalating trends in species extinction, human population growth, water use, development pressures, and the additional stresses associated with climate change, the new global synthesis predicts that freshwater systems will remain under threat well into the future.

Rivers Values

River degradation and loss of freshwater biodiversity have major implications for human water security, prosperity, health, and well-being because they threaten the provision of ecosystem services-the tangible benefits people gain from ecosystems. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a global synthesis and analysis of the state of the world's major ecosystems, grouped ecosystem services into four main categories: provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting (MEA 2005).

Provisioning services (Table 1) are the products obtained from ecosystems. Rivers and lakes hold about 100,000 km3 of freshwater globally, amounting to less than 0.01% of all water on Earth(Schwarz et al. 1990). Yet this tiny fraction of global water is absolutely vital for human life support and the provision of most other ecosystem services, including those dependent on diverse biological systems. These biologically based services include food (shrimp, fish, plants), fuel products (peat), fibers and building materials (timbers and thatch), and pharmacological products. Freshwater ecosystems underpin global food production based on artisanal and commercial fisheries, aquaculture, flood-recession agriculture, and pastoral animal husbandry (MEA 2005). Clean freshwater of low salinity is essential to grow most food and fiber crops and to drive the industries that produce food products, cooking utensils, clothing, housing, infrastructure, transport, recreation, and entertainment. Some estimates suggest that global food production must double by 2050 to meet human needs, and this must be achieved using less water; already, 70% of the world's freshwater is used in agriculture (Molden 2007).

Regulating services (Table 2) are equally vital, being the benefits obtained from the regulation of ecosystem processes such as the climate regime, hydrologic cycle, nutrient processing, and natural hazards. Rivers, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers store freshwater or slow the passage of water. Floodplains and wetlands absorb large pulses of catchment runoff and help mitigate the damaging effects of floods on landscapes and the built environment (Freitag et al. 2009). Water returning off floodplains is rich in nutrients and energy sources that fuel the food webs supporting riverine biota and dependent terrestrial species such as waterbirds and amphibians (Douglas et al. 2005). Rivers also convey freshwater to estuaries, coastal wetlands, and the nearshore environment, where flow pulses contribute to maintaining habitats of tolerable salinity for plants and animals directly used by humans. Estuarine inflows carry nutrients that stimulate primary and secondary production and support the recruitment of fish and crustaceans (Gillanders and Kingsford 2002). Mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrasses that are partly dependent on freshwater help to stabilize sediments, alter water-flow patterns, produce large quantities of organic carbon, and influence nutrient cycling and food web structure (Hemminga and Duarte 2000).

Cultural services (Table 3) are the benefits people obtain through recreation, education, and aesthetics; celebrations revolving around water and its goods and services to humans; and spiritual enrichment (MEA 2005). For many societies, rivers and lakes have profound cultural and religious significance; they are the sites for important ceremonies, the burial places of beloved family members, and the dwelling places of gods and guardian spirits. The Australian Aboriginals who lived as nomads in a very dry continent with extremely patchy freshwater resources appreciated water as few other cultures have needed to do (Bayly 1999). Caring for and protecting freshwater places and species is bound up with human perceptions of dependence on freshwater resources and species during both this life on Earth and in the afterlife. Cultural ecosystem services are made possible by supporting services such as nutrient cycling and provision of habitat and food for aquatic species.

Threats to River Values and People

Escalating human demand for freshwater is jeopardizing the very ecosystem services on which millions of humans depend directly for water, food, secure housing, quality of life, health, and prosperity. River impoundment and water diversions, in particular, threaten freshwater habitats, biodiversity, and provisioning ecosystem services, while the barriers created by dam walls and large expanses of impounded water, coupled with downstream flow reduction, can sever ecological connections in aquatic systems, fragmenting rivers from their headwaters and productive floodplains and from their estuarine deltas and coastal marine environments (Nilsson et al. 2005b). The regulation of river discharge by large dams can change the quantity, quality, and timing of freshwater flows and in so doing frequently disrupts life-history behaviors and most of the ecological processes on which riparian, freshwater, and estuarine ecosystems depend (Poff et al. 1997; Naiman et al. 2008).

Many other human interventions at catchment scale intercept or exacerbate overland flows and influence the hydrology of streams and rivers, wetlands, and estuaries. Not only do catchment activities alter surface and groundwater hydrology, they also alter the dynamics of other catchment resource regimes: sediments, nutrients and organic matter, temperature, and light/shade (Baron et al. 2002). Alterations to these resource regimes have many consequences for aquatic and riparian ecosystems, and they frequently interact to form damaging constellations of stressors (Ormerod et al. 2010). With escalating development of catchment land, deforestation, wetland drainage, irrigation, urbanization and commercial activities, these threats to aquatic biodiversity and human dependencies on freshwater and estuarine ecosystems will most certainly continue to rise.

In their global synthesis of threats to rivers and human freshwater resources, Vörösmarty et al. (2010) found that nearly 80% (4.8 billion people) of the world's population (for 2000) lives in areas with high threat levels for human water security and/or biodiversity. Vörösmarty et al. make the following critical points:

- Regions of intensive agriculture and dense settlement show the highest levels of threat, including much of the United States, virtually all of Europe, and large portions of central Asia, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and eastern China. Water scarcity particularly threatens arid and semiarid river basins across the desert belt of all continents (e.g., Argentina, the Sahel, central Asia, and the Australian Murray-Darling Basin).

- Heavily populated and developed areas pose particularly high threats to people and biodiversity in spite of high rainfall and greater pollution dilution capacity in such areas, for example, eastern China, especially within the Yangtze Basin. More than 30 large rivers that collectively discharge half of global runoff to the oceans are threatened at the river mouth by water diversions, including the Nile in Egypt, the Colorado in the United States, the Yellow in China, as well as countless smaller rivers with flow patterns so modified that the biodiversity and productivity of their estuaries and deltas are threatened (Postel and Richter 2003).

- Only the most remote areas of the world (about 0.16% of the earth's surface area), including the high north (Siberia, Canada, Alaska) and unsettled parts of the tropical zone (Amazonia, northern Australia), show low threat levels for people and ecosystems.

Threats from Climate Change

Global warming and climate change are likely to intensify both historical legacies and today's threat syndromes in agricultural catchments and urbanized landscapes (Palmer et al. 2009). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the earth's mean temperature will increase by at least1.5 ∞C above preindustrial times (IPCC 2007). A warmer atmosphere and higher evaporation and precipitation rates are expected to accelerate the global hydrologic cycle (Vörösmarty et al. 2004). Climate change appears to be a major factor in the increasing intensity and frequency of weather extremes such as cyclones, hurricanes, flood and drought episodes, and fires, while decreases in snow and ice cover have already been observed (IPCC 2007). Shifts in climatic regimes and associated alterations to global precipitation and runoff patterns, evapotranspiration rates, and other environmental regimes are already changing river flow and thermal regimes, producing longer and more severe drought episodes, and leading to more intense and frequent storm events followed by flooding.

These changes will affect freshwater supplies for humans and ecosystems, in particular the amount and timing of precipitation and runoff, rates of evaporation and transpiration, and sea level rise. The former of these hydrologic changes have implications for the distribution, character, and even the persistence of freshwater ecosystems, while rises in sea level is expected to impact estuaries, low-lying brackish and freshwater wetlands, and other coastal ecosystems. Changes in atmospheric temperature and hydrologic regimes will be accompanied by changes and interactions with other environmental regimes that have a strong influence on aquatic ecosystems. Together these shifts in the global water cycle and freshwater availability are certain to intensify problems of water supply in an increasingly populous world that has high expectations of better health, living standards, and prosperity (Alcamo et al. 2008). Rivers and groundwater systems will feel the most pressure because they are the main sources of water for most of the world's population.

With decreasing precipitation in many areas of the globe, and other changes to runoff and river hydrology, there is intense interest in defining the ecological water requirements of aquatic ecosystems, especially rivers, floodplains, and associated groundwater systems, but also the freshwater needs of estuaries into which many of the world's great rivers flow. Restoring biodiversity, ecosystem function, and resiliency (the capacity to respond and adjust to disturbance) are now global imperatives for river managers, scientists, and civil society (Dudgeon et al. 2006; Palmer et al. 2008). The challenge is immense and it is global. It requires deep understanding of the ecological roles of natural hydrologic and other environmental regimes, how alterations in flow regime impact aquatic and riparian ecosystems, what flow volumes (discharges) and temporal patterns of variability are most needed to sustain these ecosystems, and how to manage and share the world's finite supplies of freshwater to achieve the greatest benefits for people and for nature.

How Much Water Does a River Need?

This question was famously asked by Richter et al. (1997) during work by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) on rivers with highly altered flow regimes. Many scientists and water managers have provided answers to this question for thousands of streams and rivers in almost every country. The majority of "in-stream flow" methods (70%; Tharme 2003) either provide simple rules founded on the hydrologic characteristics of surface water flows, or they quantify the flow volumes needed to maintain aquatic habitat in terms of water depth, velocity, and cover for selected species, usually fish of commercial or recreational value (e.g., salmonids). Often the flow recommended to support habitat is a "minimum flow," the smallest amount of water that could maintain a wetted channel and provide opportunities for limited movement and maintenance feeding. These foundational methods, and innovations focused on two- and three-dimensional habitat modeling and other techniques, have generated many insights (e.g., Booker and Acreman 2007; Kennard et al. 2007) as well as many misgivings, because suitable habitat is only one dimension of the needs of aquatic species and the ecosystems that support them.

Around the late 1980s, river scientists working on in-stream flow methods, and a broader group interested in river ecology and restoration, drew attention to the importance of many facets of the flow regime, not just the low flows within the channel that maintain critical habitats for aquatic species. Ecologists working in very different systems and countries recognized the dynamic nature of river flows and fluxes to and from floodplain wetlands and also exchanges with groundwater systems (e.g., Gore and Nestler 1988; Statzner et al. 1988; Junk et al. 1989; Petts 1989; Stalnaker and Arnette 1976; Ward 1989; Poff and Ward 1990; Hill et al. 1991; Arthington et al. 1992; Sparks 1995; Walker et al. 1995; Poff 1996; Richter et al. 1996, 1997; Stanford et al. 1996; Naiman and DÈcamps 1997; King and Louw 1998).

Furthermore, it became increasingly apparent that alterations to river flow magnitudes (discharge), seasonal patterns, and temporal variability by dams and other interventions have severe consequences for aquatic species and ecosystem processes. In 1997 a seminal publication succinctly captured these ideas in a new paradigm for river restoration and conservation. This Natural Flow Regime Paradigm reflects on evidence that the structure and functions of riverine ecosystems, and many adaptations of aquatic biota, are dictated by temporal patterns of river flows (Poff et al. 1997). At the same time, papers by Richter et al. (1996, 1997) identified important facets of river flow regimes, and they set out how to estimate these facets statistically and to quantify alterations to them, to support the management of river flows for ecological purposes.

Environmental Flows

A broad general agreement has emerged from these scientific debates: that to protect freshwater biodiversity and maintain the ecosystem services of rivers, natural flow variability, or some semblance of it, must be maintained. With this shift in thinking there arose a broader "riverine ecosystem" perspective on the assessment of in-streams flows, and this term switched almost imperceptibly to the more inclusive terms "environmental flows" (E-flows) or "environmental water allocations" (EWAs) and the related terms "ecological and environmental water requirements" (EEWRs), "ecological water demand," and "eco-environmental water consumption" (Moore 2004; Song and Yang 2003).

All of these terms refer to flows that maintain the biophysical and ecological processes of river corridors-the dynamic aquatic continuum from source areas to the sea-embracing river channels, alluvial groundwater and hyporheic zones, riparian and floodplain wetlands, estuaries, and coastal zones. A recent definition of environmental flows also makes an explicit link between healthy river and estuarine ecosystems and the livelihoods and well-being of people and societies dependent on them: "Environmental flows describe the quantity, timing and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend upon these ecosystems" (Brisbane Declaration 2007; see also the appendix in the present volume).

Several features of this definition have universal appeal. The description signals that the "quality" of water is an important dimension alongside water quantity and temporal flow patterns, and it also highlights the continuity of rivers and estuaries and their dependence on freshwater flows. Furthermore, it explicitly links environmental flows, river and estuarine ecosystems, and the livelihoods and well-being of people and societies.

In the narrative of this book, an "environmental flow" is an integral part of the continuity of the hydrologic cycle, managed to a greater or lesser extent by human interventions to produce outcomes beneficial to species, ecosystems, and people. All components of the hydrologic cycle "flow" from place to place and time to time, in one form or another, supplying water to aquatic ecosystems that are connected and driven by surface and groundwater flows, biogeochemical fluxes, and ecological processes. How humans influence and manage these water flows is of immense significance to the aquatic and terrestrial components of the biosphere and to human welfare. As the new global synthesis of threats to freshwater ecosystems so graphically demonstrates, rivers and freshwater biodiversity are in crisis, and 80% of the world's population lives in areas with high threat levels for human water security and/or biodiversity (Vörösmarty et al. 2010).

Environmental Flows: Saving Rivers in the Third Millennium tells the story of the global freshwater crisis: from basic hydrology to river ecology and hydroecological principles; through a litany of threatening processes and degradation syndromes: to the methods, frameworks, modeling techniques, decision support systems, and the legislation, policy, and water management strategies now available to protect the water rights of aquatic ecosystems and the people dependent on them. The book's final chapter turns to climate change-the ultimate challenge-and what it may mean for aquatic ecosystems and the role of environmental flows as a means to sustain ecosystem resiliency and biodiversity. The book concludes by making the case for a vigorous global river and catchment restoration effort to sustain and restore the benefits of freshwater biodiversity and the ecological goods and services of healthy rivers and estuaries, wetlands, and groundwater. Given the enormous potential of human adaptive capacity, and the power of innovative science to inform and guide environmental flow management and other restoration measures, many rivers, wetlands, and estuaries can be saved. With effort, commitment and vision, the third millennium could become the era of transformation and restoration of Earth's natural resiliency and healing power for the benefit of people and the ecosystems on which so many human lives and species depend.