Linkages between flow regime, biota, and ecosystem processes: Implications for river restoration

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Science  20 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6459, eaaw2087
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw2087

River restoration guided by research

Human activities have altered the flow regimes of many of Earth's rivers, with negative impacts on biodiversity, water quality, and ecological processes. In a Review, Palmer and Ruhi explain how restoration designs now attempt to mimic ecologically important aspects of natural flow regimes, guided by insights into how variations in flow affect biota and ecosystem processes. To be successful, such efforts must go beyond accounting for flood pulses to restore natural flow variability and achieve hydrological connectivity between a river and its surroundings.

Science, this issue p. eaaw2087

Structured Abstract


Early civilizations developed around seasonal river floodplains, and the natural rhythm of rivers remains critical to humans today. We use streams and rivers to meet drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower needs by storing and moving water in complex ways, at the times and places of our choosing. Consequently, many of Earth’s rivers have flow regimes that are “unnatural” in magnitude, frequency, duration, and timing. The rise in river degradation globally has motivated research on the link between hydrologic alteration and declines in valued biota. At the same time, largely fueled by new technologies and methods, research has expanded to understand the patterns in, and drivers of, riverine processes like primary production, in both near-pristine and degraded rivers. A third line of research, stymied by how difficult it has been to restore degraded rivers, has called for process-based restoration, building on knowledge from the other two research thrusts. Today’s hydroecological science seeks to understand the mechanisms whereby flow regimes affect biota and ecosystem processes, and the interplay between them, in a three-way interaction we call the flow-biota-ecosystem processes nexus.


By shifting the focus from static patterns at sites to dynamic processes along river networks, advances are being made to understand the interactions and feedbacks at the nexus. Fueled by increasingly available time-series data and novel modeling, emerging research ranges from studies on regime-based properties such as flow periodicity and its change, to studies on river network structure and associated spatial variation in flow and water chemistry. These studies demonstrate how flow variability influences long-term persistence of riverine assemblages, and they are disentangling the direct effects of flow on communities and ecosystem processes from its indirect effects (e.g., via species interactions, light-blocking turbidity). Changes in temporal patterns in flow magnitudes can increase risk of community collapse and alter key ecosystem processes such as primary production. Growing research shows that storm flows not only enhance inputs and downstream export of terrestrially derived carbon to rivers but, when associated with sustained hydrologic connectivity with soils, exert particular influence on water chemistry and biogeochemical processes that can influence food webs. Increased availability of environmental sensors has stimulated research, showing that extreme flows may impart disproportionate impacts on stream metabolism, but the relationship can depend on the predictability of those flows. Research combining changes in flow patterns with stable isotope analyses is revealing how temporal fluctuations in habitat, and in the quality and quantity of basal resources, influence trophic pathways and resulting food-web structure. Evidence suggests that restoring particular facets of a flow regime can produce desirable conservation outcomes, but context is paramount. Restoration actions going beyond discrete flow events and enhancing groundwater-influenced river habitat or redirecting subsurface flow paths may be critical in future climates.


Our understanding of the flow-biota-ecosystem processes nexus is still incomplete and is a frontier research topic. Challenges include connecting organismal and ecosystem-level processes, and understanding the role of microbial communities as intermediaries. Capturing the effects of watershed-level physical and biogeochemical heterogeneity, and parsing out direct, indirect, or cascading effects of flow alteration on biota and processes would also reduce uncertainty in restoration outcomes, particularly in novel, nonstationary environments. Understanding how much flow restoration alone can achieve in urban watersheds is an urgent need, as is translating findings from hydroecology to design green infrastructure and flow release programs from reservoirs. These management tools may offer growing opportunities to experiment with flow regimes, which will assist in refining process-based river restoration. Both solid science, and effective translation into practice will be needed to curb the fast pace of global river ecosystem degradation.

River flow regimes have shap­ed the life history strategies of plants and animals over evolutionary time scales.

River regulation and associated alteration of flow and thermal regimes alter organismal development, often shifting important events such as insect emergence, depicted here by Palingenia mayflies entering their winged, flying stage to mate.



River ecosystems are highly biodiverse, influence global biogeochemical cycles, and provide valued services. However, humans are increasingly degrading fluvial ecosystems by altering their streamflows. Effective river restoration requires advancing our mechanistic understanding of how flow regimes affect biota and ecosystem processes. Here, we review emerging advances in hydroecology relevant to this goal. Spatiotemporal variation in flow exerts direct and indirect control on the composition, structure, and dynamics of communities at local to regional scales. Streamflows also influence ecosystem processes, such as nutrient uptake and transformation, organic matter processing, and ecosystem metabolism. We are deepening our understanding of how biological processes, not just static patterns, affect and are affected by stream ecosystem processes. However, research on this nexus of flow-biota-ecosystem processes is at an early stage. We illustrate this frontier with evidence from highly altered regulated rivers and urban streams. We also identify research challenges that should be prioritized to advance process-based river restoration.

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