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Rivers are social–ecological systems: Time to integrate human dimensions into riverscape ecology and management

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Incorporation of concepts from landscape ecology into understanding and managing riverine ecosystems has become widely known as riverscape ecology. Riverscape ecology emphasizes interactions among processes at different scales and their consequences for valued ecosystem components, such as riverine fishes. Past studies have focused strongly on understanding the ecological processes in riverscapes and how human actions modify those processes. It is increasingly clear, however, that an understanding of the drivers behind actions that lead to human modification also merit consideration, especially regarding how those drivers influence management efficacy. These indirect drivers of riverscape outcomes can be understood in the context of a diverse array of social processes, which we collectively refer to as human dimensions. Like ecological phenomena, social processes also exhibit complex interactions across spatiotemporal scales. Greater emphasis on feedbacks between social and ecological processes will lead scientists and managers to more completely understand riverscapes as complex, dynamic, interacting social–ecological systems. Emerging applications in riverscapes, as well as studies of other ecosystems, provide examples that can lead to stronger integration of social and ecological science. We argue that conservation successes within riverscapes may not come from better ecological science, improved ecosystem service analyses, or even economic incentives if the fundamental drivers of human behaviors are not understood and addressed in conservation planning and implementation.

This article is categorized under:

  • Water and Life > Stresses and Pressures on Ecosystems
  • Human Water > Water Governance
  • Engineering Water > Planning Water
Simplified illustration of social–ecological systems within riverscapes. Starting on the right, the ecological system can be envisioned as having a fundamental capacity to produce conditions in riverscapes that deliver ecosystem goods and services (flows) to society (concepts adapted from Villamagna, Angermeier, & Bennett, ). Common examples of flows of ecosystem goods and services to society include water, food, flood protection, biodiversity, and recreation (Martin‐Ortega et al., ; Table ). The social system is represented by four interacting subsystems (Parsons, ). Social conditions that emerge from the interaction of these subsystems can include values or governance (discussed further herein). These emergent conditions drive human demands for ecosystem goods and services that lead to pressures (Villamagna et al., ) for consumption, conservation, or restoration of ecosystem capacity. Because riverscapes represent large and heterogeneous extents, both social and ecological processes in play are expected to exhibit spatial and temporally variable compositions, configurations, and connectivities and variably interact as a result
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Water and Life > Stresses and Pressures on Ecosystems
Engineering Water > Planning Water
Human Water > Water Governance

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