Restoring Riparian Ecosystems: The Challenge of Accommodating Variability and Designing Restoration Trajectories
Francine M. R Hughes, Anglia Polytechnic University
Adrian Colston, Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve
J. Owen Mountford, NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
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Flood disturbance processes play a key role in the functioning of riparian ecosystems and in the maintenance of biodiversity along river corridors. As a result, riparian ecosystems can be described as mobile habitat mosaics characterized by variability and unpredictability. Any river restoration initiative should aim to mimic these attributes. This paper suggests that there needs to be an increased institutional capacity to accept some levels of both variability and unpredictability in the ecological outcomes of river restoration projects. Restoration projects have frequently used some form of historical or contemporary reference system to define objectives and to help in the evaluation process. Using these reference systems can give a false sense of the predictability of ecological outcomes. We suggest that reference systems need to be used with caution for six reasons: (1) there are often no appropriate reference systems to use, (2) many catchment parameters have changed since the times of chosen historic reference systems, (3) climate change has been continuous throughout the Holocene, (4) projected climate change is of uncertain magnitude, (5) alien species cannot be avoided, and (6) landscape context changes through time. As well as defining short-term objectives, we suggest that river restoration projects should also formulate longer-term (decadel) restoration trajectories that are less predictable but more representative of real system attributes. Restoration trajectories could be defined using a range of ecological outcomes to accommodate interannual variability. The challenges of defining what levels of variability are important for restoring European floodplain forests are used to demonstrate the difficulties of broadening approaches and creating trajectories. In particular, the changing significance of variability at different spatial and temporal scales is discussed. An account is given of a restoration project at Wicken Fen in the United Kingdom in which nondeterministic approaches to goal setting have been initiated.
river restoration; predictability; variability; restoration trajectories; reference systems; Wicken Fen; floodplain forests; restoration objectives; restoration evaluation