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Artificial floods: Restoring the ecological integrity of rivers

Artificial floods: Restoring the ecological integrity of rivers

“You can never step into the same river,
for new waters are always flowing on to you.”
—Heraclitus of Ephesus

Rushing rivers, with their unremitting twists and turns and continuous renewal, are often used as a metaphor for life, but the analogy is just as appropriate for scientific research, I reflected as I walked along the banks of a sparkling, turquoise-blue river in the heart of the Swiss National Park. The never-ending cycle of formulating, testing, and modifying evidence-based hypotheses is a hallmark of how humanity acquires new knowledge.

Conducting experiments with rivers is especially challenging because they can never be isolated from their social and ecological contexts. Worldwide, people have appropriated more than half the globe’s accessible surface water by erecting hundreds of thousands of dams. Although these dams provide many societal advantages, including hydropower, water storage, and flood control, they also severely disrupt the ecosystems within which they’re placed. Recently, however, there has been a growing focus on using intentional water releases from the very dams that disturb rivers as ecological restoration tools.

The Spöl River flows through the heart of the beautiful Swiss National Park. (Credit: Terri Cook)

Thanks to the support of an EGU Science Journalism Fellowship, I was hiking next to the Spöl River, a beautiful ribbon of crystal-clear water winding through a deep gorge carved into a soaring limestone upland in the Rhaetian Alps, which are tucked into the country’s southeastern corner. The craggy peaks and towering spruce, pine, and golden larch trees provided a startling contrast to the arid, high-desert scenery along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon where, several years earlier, I had witnessed the Colorado River’s rapid rise following a so-called “artificial flood” unleashed from Glen Canyon Dam.

Multiple manmade floods have been conducted in the Grand Canyon to benefit the corridor’s physical, cultural, and biological resources, most notably endangered native fish and the disappearing sandbars upon which many organisms, as well as the multimillion-dollar rafting industry, depend. Following years of intensive scientific study and negotiations between the numerous stakeholders, the U.S. government recently implemented a long-term strategy for releasing manmade floods following large sand inputs from tributaries that join the main stem below Glen Canyon Dam. The reason for this timing is to move the recently introduced sand up onto the banks to replenish the shrinking sandbars.

Although these events have been widely reported in the press, few people realize that one of the most important models for designing the Grand Canyon experiments was the Spöl River. I had thus traveled to Switzerland to report on the globe’s best example of how, using carefully designed and monitored floods, scientists and managers have collaborated for a decade and a half to restore—and sustain—this river’s ecological integrity.

Of Fish and Floods

From the Livigno Reservoir on the Italian-Swiss border, the Spöl flows through Switzerland’s only national park before joining the Inn River, a tributary of the Danube, 28 kilometers downstream. Inside the park, the Spöl is sandwiched between two dams, the 130-meter-high Punt dal Gall on the Italian border and the 73-meter-high Ova Spin downstream. Built in the 1960s following a contentious vote, the dams are towering concrete barriers that seemed to me to be out of proportion to the river’s modest size.

Punt dal Gall Dam: The 130-meter-high Punt dal Gall Dam was built in the 1960s on the Swiss-Italian border. (Credit: Terri Cook)

Studies in the national park in the late 1980s confirmed that two decades of reduced flows had severely altered the stream, Ruedi Haller, the park’s Research and Geoinformation Manager, told me as we hiked. The riverbed had become choked with fine-grained sediments, reducing brown trout spawning grounds and changing its assemblage of fauna.

In 1990, a mandated flushing of the safety release gates at the base of the upper Punt dal Gall Dam noticeably improved the ecological conditions downstream, flushing out many of the fine-grained sediments and decreasing the accumulations of mosses, algae, and bottom-dwelling fauna that had taken advantage of the low and steady dam-controlled flows. Within months, however, the Spöl returned to its prior condition. As Chris Robinson of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology explained to me, this first experiment indicated that a single artificial flood could not sustain the river’s ecological integrity over the long term.

Following this initial success, park authorities, researchers, and representatives of the Engadin Hydropower Company, which operates the dams, gradually overcame their former distrust and began to work together to design and implement a flood release program to improve the river’s long-term health. Since then, operators have unleashed more than 25 experimental floods that, by mimicking the seasonally variable conditions to which native fauna and flora have adapted, have recreated an ecosystem much more typical of an Alpine stream. The current flood release program incorporates two artificial floods per year, with the magnitudes determined by annual monitoring.

The Sarine

I also visited a second managed river, the Sarine, near Bern, to watch scientists assess the results of an artificial flood that had just been completed. Among the team working at the site was Michael Doering of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences. He was using a drone to snap post-flood photographs to compare with images taken just before the event to provide a bird’s-eye view of the changes the water had wrought.

Michael Doering uses images taken by a drone to determine the amount of sediment relocated during an artificial flood. (Credit: Terri Cook)

Once analyzed, these and other data will show whether the Sarine flood was large enough to achieve the goals of moving sediment from the banks into the stream and raising the water level high enough to benefit the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems straddling its banks. Both are necessary, explained Doering, to support a healthy amount of biodiversity, which dammed rivers typically lack.

Through a revision to its Water Protection Act, Switzerland has committed to eliminating the negative impacts of hydropower plants on all of the country’s rivers. Of the more than 700 facilities that need to be mitigated by 2030, it is envisaged that up to about 40 will use artificial floods, according to Martin Pfaundler of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. To accomplish this, scientists and water managers will rely on the experience obtained not only from Swiss rivers, but also—as part of the ever-flowing research cycle—from the new knowledge gained from the Colorado.

By Terri Cook, a science and travel writer and winner of the EGU’s 2016 Science Journalism Fellowship.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sedimentary record of catastrophic floods in the Atacama desert

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sedimentary record of catastrophic floods in the Atacama desert

Despite being one of the driest regions on Earth, the Atacama desert is no stranger to catastrophic flood events. Today’s post highlights how the sands, clays and muds left behind once the flood waters recede can hold the key to understanding this natural hazard.

During the severe rains that occurred between May 12 and 13, 2017 in the Atacama Region (Northern Chile) the usually dry Copiapó River experienced a fast increase in its runoff. It caused the historic center of the city of Copiapó to flood and resulted in thousands of affected buildings including the University of Atacama.

The city of Copiapó (~160,000 inhabitants) is the administrative capital of this Chilean Region and is built on the Copiapó River alluvial plain. As a result, and despite being located in one of the driest deserts of the world, it has been flooded several times during the 19th and 20th century. Floods back in 2015 were among the worst recorded.

The effects of the most recent events are, luckily, significantly milder than those of 2015 as no casualties occurred. However, more than 2,000 houses are affected and hundreds have been completely lost.

During this last event, the water height reached 75 cm over the river margins. Nearby streets where filled with torrents of mud- and sand-laden waters, with plant debris caught up in the mix too. Once the waters receded, a thick bed of randomly assorted grains of sand  was deposited over the river banks and urbanized areas.

Frozen in the body of the bed, the sand grains developed different forms and structures. A layer of only the finest grained sediments, silts and clays, bears the hallmark of the final stages of the flooding. As water speeds decrease, the finest particles are able to drop out of the water and settle over the coarser particles. Finally, a water saturated layer of mud, only a few centimeters thick, blanketed the sands, preserving the sand structures in 3D.

The presence of these unusual and enigmatic muddy bedforms has been scarcely described in the scientific literature. A new study and detailed analysis of the structures will help better understand the sedimentary record of catastrophic flooding and the occurrence of high-energy out-of-channel deposits in the geological record.

By Manuel Abad and Tatiana Izquierdo, Universidad de Atacama (Chile)

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: The world’s narrowest fjord

Imaggeo on Mondays: The world’s narrowest fjord

Feast your eyes on this Scandinavia scenic shot by Sarah Connors, the EGU Policy Fellow. While visiting Norway, Sarah, took a trip along the world famous fjords and was able to snap the epic beauty of this glacier shaped landscape. To find out more about how she captured the shot and the forces of nature which formed this region, be sure to delve into today’s Imaggeo on Mondays post.

The Nærøyfjord is situated in southern Norway between Oslo and the western of Bergen. It’s a narrow branch of the larger Sognefjord, which is the second longest and deepest fjord in the world (204 km long and 1,308 m deep). The 11 km Nærøyfjord is the world’s most narrow fjord spanning only 500 m at some points. It is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fjords are formed by glaciers which have extended to below the present sea level. Glaciers are large ice structures that are slowly flowing due to their own weight. After periods of climate warming (i.e. after the last ice age) glaciers melt and expose deep valleys that have been carved from their movement. The increase in sea level from the melted glacier partially submerges the valley to form a fjord. In addition to this, the Earth’s crust can rebound due to the weight of the glacier being removed. The landscape that is created is therefore significantly different to what was there before.

In some fjords, after the glacier has retreated, the original river which created the glacier will return. This can allow for creation of homes and farming procedures along the fjord. The village of Gudvangen is found along the Nærøydalselvi river which flows into the inland tip of the Nærøyfjord.

The photo was taken just before sunset on a cold March day from a ferry that passes through the fjord daily. The cold spring time weather is highlighted from the snow, which can be seen on the peak tops. I was lucky and managed to capture the sunlight breaking through some low-lying clouds, which had made the day quite glum up until that point.

 

By Sarah Connors, EGU Policy Fellow.

 

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/