Natural Variability Is Key To River Restoration

December 05, 1997

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Managing a river to maintain minimum water flow or sustain a single "important species" is like teaching pet tricks to a wolf: The animal may perform, but it's not much of a wolf anymore.

That is the conclusion of a six-university panel of river experts whose report, "The Natural Flow Regime: A Paradigm for River Conservation and Restoration," is published in the December 1997 issue of the journal BioScience (Vol. 47, pp. 769-784). Letting a river do its own thing -- come drought or high water -- is more complicated than anyone realized until recently, the panel agrees, but at least scientists now know why natural flow is important and how to help.

"People say you can never return the Ohio River to its natural state, and you can't -- without displacing a lot of people," said Mark B. Bain, a fish ecologist at Cornell University and one of eight authors of the BioScience report. "But you can enhance different portions of the Ohio's flow regime, by changes to dams and water-use operations, for example, and return some of the ecological integrity with relatively minor changes," he said.

"It is now clear that natural river systems can and should be allowed to repair and maintain themselves," said N. LeRoy Poff, a biologist at Colorado State University. "Every river system is different, and each will take a different mix of human-aided and natural recovery methods. But the key to management of healthy river ecosystems has to revolve around restoring their natural dynamic character."

The river system study was funded by a grant from the George Gund Foundation, with logistical support from The Nature Conservancy. Participating in the study were Bain, an associate professor of natural resources at Cornell; Poff, an assistant professor of biology, Colorado State; J. David Allan, professor of natural resources, University of Michigan; James R. Karr, professor in the departments of fisheries and zoology, University of Washington; Karen L. Prestegaard, associate professor of geology, University of Maryland; Brian D. Richter, hydrologist for the Nature Conservancy; Richard E. Sparks, director of river research, Illinois Natural History Survey; and Julie C. Stromberg, associate professor of plant biology, Arizona State University.

The scientists said there's more to natural flow than tolerating the occasional "100-year flood" or creating human-made floods. They identified five often overlooked components of a river's flow regime (magnitude, frequency, duration, timing and rate of change), saying: "Modification of flow has cascading effects on the ecological integrity of rivers." (See "summary points," attached)

Cornell ecologist Bain cited five examples of American rivers that still run free, and four that could with a little help: The river scientists said they hoped the report -- by presenting state-of-the-art knowledge about the importance of natural variability to aquatic and riparian ecosystems -- will help river managers and agencies make the argument that unfettered rivers have multiple benefits for nature and for human society.

Cornell University

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