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Effective restoration of aquatic ecosystems: scaling the barriers

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The focus of ecosystem restoration has recently shifted from pure rehabilitation objectives to both improving ecological functioning and the delivery of ecosystem services. However, these different targets need to be integrated to create a unified, synergistic, and balanced restoration approach. This should be done by combining state‐of‐the‐art knowledge from natural and social sciences to create manageable units of restoration that consider both the temporal and multiple spatial scales of ecosystems, legislative units, and policy agendas. Only by considering these aspects combined can we accomplish more cost‐efficient restoration resulting in resilient ecosystems that provide a wealth of ecosystem services and the possibility for sustainable economic development in the future. We propose a novel conceptual framework that will yield more effective ecosystem restoration: the Operational Restoration Unit. This is based on scale‐dependent restoration actions that can adhere easily to the relevant environmental legislation, encompass the spatial and temporal resilience of aquatic ecosystems, and consider the sum of human pressures acting on water bodies. This opens up possibilities for an effective integration of the restoration agenda into the delivery of major policy objectives of economic growth, regional development, and human security. WIREs Water 2017, 4:e1190. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1190

An Operational Restoration Unit (ORU) sets the spatial borders of specific restoration project(s), and encompasses the wider institutional and socio‐economic drivers that directly or indirectly affect the project. In ORU1, the restoration project deals with only one side‐stream, striving to achieve the Water Framework Directive (WFD) goal of Good Ecological Status in that Water Body, e.g., by a local measure of changing channel planform. Here, only the restoration measures and effects within this one stream's catchment are considered. In ORU2, the restoration measure is the re‐meandering and floodplain reactivation of the lower portion of the river (red stretch), to comply with the goals of the Habitats Directive (HD). Here, the ORU is set to be the entire catchment upstream, including ORU1, as the upstream reaches will affect the restored area. However, the benefits of the restoration within ORU2 may also extend downstream. In our example, the flood risk in the city downstream may be reduced through water retention, thus addressing the Floods Directive (FD), and nutrient retention may improve, resulting in a higher quality of the water entering the ocean [Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD)]. Thus, expanding ORU2 to ORU3 will increase the benefits, even though the actual restoration only happens within ORU2.
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The relationship between the initial restoration needs and the biophysical, socio‐economic, and institutional settings and pressures that work at different scales and influence the spatial extent of an Operational Restoration Unit (ORU). The ORU will then define what restoration actions are needed and possible, and the use of benchmark indicators of restoration effectiveness will determine the success rate in relation to the initial objective(s). Additional objectives may at the same time be fulfilled, such as flood protection as a result of restored wetlands.
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Socio‐economic and institutional drivers, ecosystem resilience, and restoration actions work at a variety of temporal and spatial scales. It is imperative to understand and take into consideration these scales and the interdependencies between society, restorations, and ecosystem resilience to increase the effectiveness of restoration and hence ecosystem service delivery. This is encompassed in the ORU concept.
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