Protecting and restoring river ecosystems to support biodiversity: Living Rivers Europe recommendations

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03 May

In March 2021, Living Rivers Europe, a coalition of five environmental and angling organisations (EAA, WWF, EEB, ERN, The Nature Conservancy and Wetlands International), published its scoping paper on EU restoration targets for free-flowing rivers and freshwater ecosystems. Representing a dedicated movement of over 40 million people across Europe, the coalition aims to ensure that the loss of aquatic wildlife is halted and reversed and that European waters are managed more sustainably.

Read the scoping paper in full here.

If the EU is serious about achieving the goals set in the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, then any legally binding restoration targets that the European Commission committed to propose in 2021 will need to drive the restoration of freshwater ecosystems and reverse the steep decline of freshwater biodiversity.

This paper builds and complements the position paper ‘Restoring EU’s Nature’ released by a coalition of 20+ NGOs in October 2020. It presents elements to be considered as part of the new nature restoration law specifically related to the protection and restoration of free-flowing rivers and freshwater ecosystems. We consider these elements as essential to meet the key needs of freshwater ecosystems to allow their natural processes to sustain biodiversity values and to provide key ecosystem services. The legal requirements in the upcoming Nature Restoration Law need to be added to existing obligations, in particular under the Birds Directive (BD), the Habitats Directive (HD), the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD).

Within the framework of "Restoring EU's Nature" we would like to make the following recommendations in relation to the freshwater ecosystems:

Our 10 key recommendations and asks are:

1. We recommend increasing the current target for free-flowing rivers of at least 25,000 km to 15% of all rivers to be restored to a free-flowing state by 2030 through inter alia barrier removal and floodplain restoration.

2. The upcoming Nature Restoration Law should have a specific focus on how the targets will address the hydromorphological elements of aquatic ecosystems and their functionality.

3. Restoration targets for freshwater ecosystems set in the upcoming Nature Restoration Law should focus on basin-scale restoration of river continuity to ensure better integration of the WFD and BHD implementation as well as targets to restore lateral connectivity through restoration of floodplains and wetlands.

4. We recommend the development of binding targets for restoration of wetlands and interconnected (small) waterbodies with high biodiversity or biodiversity potential, currently not addressed in the implementation of the WFD and HD. If added, they would build a more coherent, functional and lasting “green-blue infrastructure” network.

5. To increase investment in river restoration actions, we recommend earmarking funds to measures directed specifically to restoration needs of freshwater ecosystems. This should be done through:
Using opportunities in the existing financial structures (e.g. EU Common Agricultural Policy and related funds, European Structural and Investment Funds, Next Generation EU);
Adding new funding mechanisms (such as blended instruments or insurance industry funding) and the creation of a dedicated EU restoration fund (or facility within some other fund) in the MFF.

6. A “nature-based solution” requirement should be introduced to EU funds earmarked for investments in water, climate, disaster risk reduction, energy, agricultural and transport sectors, so that only interventions which both address societal challenges and preserve or improve biodiversity conservation can benefit from public funds. Under the upcoming Nature Restoration Law, river and wetland restoration measures and other nature-based solutions (NbS) which maintain and improve biodiversity whilst providing societal benefits should be given priority over single-objective solutions (such as grey infrastructure) to water-related problems.

7. Targets for river restoration should include effective management post-restoration to ensure the restored river systems maintain the environmental processes needed to meet the project goals, such as the occurrence of target species and habitats. This is especially relevant for anthropogenically modified rivers where periodic human intervention may be necessary for (re)creating optimal habitat characteristics.

8. The WFD and HD provide a good basis for monitoring. In addition to this, the upcoming Nature Restoration Law should require long-term monitoring programmes of the important freshwater key ecological attributes and biodiversity variables of holistic functioning riverine systems.

9. The upcoming Nature Restoration Law should include a requirement that restored and free-flowing rivers also will be protected and kept in their free-flowing status. They should be integrated (added) to the 30% of legally protected land area target proposed in the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030.

10. We recommend that the European Commission creates a “dashboard” system, in which the progress towards both no deterioration of current state as well as the target for free-flowing rivers can be monitored and publicly communicated.
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