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Ecosystem services for river basin management

Do you know about the Water Framework Directive? It calls for all waters in the European Union to be managed as river basins and for those river basins to be brought up to “good status.” That’s tremendous – a really forward-looking way to think about managing water. But as you can surely imagine, it’s also quite a task to implement!

I was lucky enough to work with the RISKBASE group during 2009-2010 to help develop risk-based approaches for managers to guide river basins to good status. I’m not an expert in risk, nor an expert about European river basins, but I was really excited to get involved. This had the potential to bring biophysical science together with new management approaches to actually solve problems.

I brought my background in ecosystem services to the table. Ecosystem services are a way of identifying and keeping track of how all the biophysical processes that happen in the environment – plants photosynthesizing, nutrient cycling, water trickling or rushing through a landscape – impact whether people have enough food to eat, clean water to drink and keep safe from floods.

There are two things I think are especially good about the ecosystem services approach. First, using an ecosystem services framework forces me, as a biophysical scientist, to identify and articulate exactly how changes in the environment affect the things we all like to do in watersheds. So, I have to go a big step further than just saying that some action will change nutrient loading in a river, for example. I have to figure out how much that change is going to affect the drinkability, swimmable quality or abundance of fish in that river. Second, because ecosystem services can help us articulate the diverse impacts of land use change on the things we care about, it can help us avoid the unintended consequences of changing land use. For example, it’s easy to see the benefits of logging a hillside and selling the timber. Ecosystems services helps illuminate how that change might put a lot of sediment in a river or lake at the bottom of the hill, and how that would affect the people who want to drink, swim or fish there.

Ecosystem services get a lot of attention for putting monetary values on biophysical processes, like the way trees on a hillside help keep soil in place instead of in the river below. And calculating that value can be really useful – it helps us use policy tools we already have, like cost-benefit analysis, to weigh the trade-off between logging and impacts to the river. But ecosystem services assessment isn’t all about monetary valuation. Lots of times, identifying that there will be impacts to things people care about and quantifying how big those impacts will be is enough to help inform decisions.

So how does this all come back to European river basins? I think ecosystem services can be a great way to get people talking productively about all the ways they use a watershed and how that will or won’t change if land use or land management changes. All that time and effort we spent working has finally turned into something, too: a book summing up all our work just came out: Risk-Informed Management of European River Basins. I’m excited to see the chapter I led, Ecosystem Services and River Basin Management, finally in print! I hope it provides some guidance and inspiration for folks trying to make rivers all over the world a little bit healthier. Please feel free to get in touch if I can tell you anything more – I’m kbrauman at umn.edu!

Kate Brauman is a postdoctoral fellow with IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative

Image courtesy of coolmonfrere (Flickr | Creative Commons)

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