Nature-based management makes resilient rivers

Finding nature's way: Professor Kirstie Fryirs of the School of Natural Sciences at Macquarie University (credit: Macquarie University)

A new research paper in Nature Communications Earth and Environment shows progress in Australia towards United Nations goals, making rivers more resilient and better able to recover from floods, drought and other environmental impacts. It is an incentive to look closer at nature-based management and rehabilitation across Australia.

In July 2022, the 120-kilometre Wollombi Brook, which flows north into the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, suffered one of its biggest floods on record. It held up remarkably well, said Professor Kirstie Fryirs of the School of Natural Sciences at Macquarie University.

“There was widespread inundation, but the flood waters were slower, and the vegetation prevented large-scale erosion and sediment movement. All the hard work that a very active community put into nature-based rehabilitation for more than 20 years, such as continuous streamside revegetation, played a role in this outcome. It is one of the best examples in Australia of sustainable environmental restoration in the management of rivers,” she said.

Benefits of nature-based management

It represents the sort of transformation Professor Fryirs from Macquarie University and research fellow Dr Kathryn Russell of the University of Melbourne think the multi-billion-dollar river management industry worldwide should be working towards.

“It’s important as part of the worldwide effort to achieve river sustainability and resilience to drought, fire and flood,” said Russell.

The researchers said Wollombi Brook encapsulates the changes we need to make to meet river health goals set by the United Nations. The goals were formed in its Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to 2030, and nature-based management could be key. Adopting the UN environmental goals as principles in river management will be essential to conserve and improve river health. It will also make effective use of diverse and traditional knowledge while integrating grassroots-to-global action. These programs should enhance the robustness and cost efficiency of restoration efforts, and secure river resilience to climate change and natural disasters.

Accelerating and upscaling

Dr Russell is the lead author, and Professor Fryirs is the second author of a paper recently published in Nature Communications Earth and Environment. Nine additional authors from a diversity of backgrounds also contributed. The paper does not investigate river management directly. Instead, they looked at how the industry behind it in Australia has been changing to meet those goals. The verdict is that progress has been solid but patchy.

“We’re doing a lot of good things at the local level,” Professor Fryirs said, citing several examples in eastern NSW. Dr Russell provided urban examples of Norman Creek in Hanlon Park/Bur’uda across the river from the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Russell also pointed out the Sunbury Integrated Water Management Plan. It will protect creeks and safeguard water supplies in western Melbourne.

“But this work needs upscaling and better resourcing – from short sections of river to corridors to catchments – if we are going to get anywhere close to achieving some of the UN’s global goals,” Professor Fryirs said. “Australia seems to have reached a pivotal point with fires, floods and droughts. If we don’t get this right now, then we may have lost that moment.”

Analysis and recommendations

The authors analysed the spread of papers delivered to the long-running Australian Stream Management (ASM) conference over the 25 years between 1996 to 2021. From their analysis, they extracted information on how the structure and the approaches of Australia’s river management industry have changed over time. They also examined what the successes and failures have been.

They found that the river management industry has matured over those 25 years. There is increasing diversity and collaboration between its different components. However, there has been little measurable expansion of the participation of local communities. There has also been very little discussion of the use of adaptive management or ‘learning by doing’ and ‘learning from mistakes’.

The researchers believe what they have found in Australia is typical of much of the developed world. This is in contrast to others parts of the world where expensive engineering solutions, like big dams, channels and pipelines, are still prevalent. This continues to occur in countries such as China, India and South America.

“The trends are quite similar,” said Dr Russell. “While our analysis is local, our recommendations are global.”

The authors made five recommendations to support sustainable development based on their analysis. Practitioners from different management areas should work together and with communities (including First Nations communities) holistically. Nature-based rather than engineering solutions should be implemented. More resources should be devoted to adaptive river management. Institutions should preserve knowledge and understanding, and practitioners should have more influence in formulating government policy.

Their co-authors are from the Victorian Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action, Water Technology Pty Ltd, Streamology Pty Ltd, Alluvium Consulting Pty Ltd, Hydrobiology, and Melbourne Water.

Related Articles:

Send this to a friend