Approaching the physical-biological interface in rivers: a review of methods for ecological evaluation of flow regimes

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    New European legislation known as the Water Framework Directive (WFD) challenges catchment hydrologists and freshwater biologists to quantify the risk of damage to the organic communities of rivers that arises from anthropogenic distortion of the natural flow regime. Here, we take the first step towards this goal by collecting together relevant information from the two disciplines. An extensive biological literature is examined for insights into the ways in which the species and communities associated with rivers might change when the flow regime is altered. From the hydrological literature, the indicators of flow regime and flow regime change that are pertinent to ecology are described, and consideration is given to means of deriving flow regime data for ungauged river reaches. Attempts to combine hydrology and ecology in classifying rivers and in setting flow objectives to favour biota are then reviewed, together with integrated approaches to river management that aim to promote ecological quality. A significant scale disparity is noted between the disciplines, hydrology being studied at catchment, subcatchment and reach scales, and biology generally at local level. Nonetheless, both yield methods with potential applications in aspects of WFD implementation. The approach with most appeal for general risk assessment is based on the concept of hydrological alteration. This technique employs flow regime variables selected for their importance to aquatic and riparian ecology, and quantifies deviations from the natural values of these variables at reach scale. For WFD purposes, calibration of the scale of hydrological alteration in terms of risk to ecological status is desirable. In this, priority should be given to identification of the level of hydrological alteration that corresponds to the division between good and moderate ecological status.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)506-531
    Number of pages26
    JournalProgress in Physical Geography
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2005


    • Anthropogenic influence
    • Hydro-ecology
    • Hydrological change
    • Lotic organisms
    • Water Framework Directive


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