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Assessing the geomorphic recovery potential of rivers: forecasting future trajectories of adjustment for use in management

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In an era of river repair, the concept of recovery enhancement has become central to river management practice. However, until about the early 2000s there were no coherent geomorphic frameworks with which to forecast river recovery potential. While the practical uptake of such frameworks has been slow, and debates continue about what recovery means, some river management agencies in different parts of the world have applied related concepts within catchment scale, process‐based approaches to river management. Agencies that make use of recovery enhancement approaches have reframed the way that vision setting, planning, and prioritization are undertaken. In this study, we review river recovery as a principle. We then present, using examples, an updated version of the framework for assessing river recovery and river recovery potential that is embedded in the River Styles framework. Finally, we show how the application of this framework can be used to better inform river management practice. WIREs Water 2016, 3:727–748. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1158 This article is categorized under: Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness Engineering Water > Planning Water
Simple examples of river evolution diagram. Boxes represent position of reach described in the text. [Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2008 Island Press]
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Reading the landscape to inform interpretations of river degradation and/or recovery. Although the same type of process may be occurring, the interpretation of whether degradation or recovery is underway is river type dependent. (a) Incision and channel formation in a chain‐of‐ponds system is a degradation process, whereas (b) redefinition of a low flow channel after the passage of a sediment slug in a low sinuosity sand bed river is considered a recovery process. Photos: (a) Mulwaree Ponds, NSW, (b) Fish River, NSW. All photos: K. Fryirs.
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Benches and ledges as indicators of channel contraction (recovery) and expansion (degradation) respectively. Benches are step‐like depositional landforms that are attached to channel banks. They have a different sedimentary structure to the adjacent floodplain (a) and tend to occur where channel contraction is underway after channel widening. They are key indicators of river recovery. Ledges are step‐like erosional features along channel banks. They have the same sedimentary structure to the adjacent floodplain (b) and occur where channel expansion is underway. They are key indicators of river degradation. (c) Macdonald River, NSW, (d) Polpah Creek, Western NSW, (e) Lockyer Creek, Queensland, (f) Lachlan River, NSW. All photos: K. Fryirs.
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Forms of river recovery as indicated by the presence, absence, or assemblage of geomorphic units in a reach of different river types: (a) bench formation and channel narrowing along a fine‐grained meandering river (i) Lockyer Creek, Queensland in the 1890s and in (ii) 2014; (b) reemergence of pools along a meandering gravel bed river (iii) Mulloon Creek, NSW in the mid‐2000s and in (iv) 2015; (c) reemergence of pools in a bedrock controlled river after the passage of a sediment slug (v) Sandy Creek, Bega Catchment, NSW and (vi) Bemboka River, Bega Catchment, NSW; (d) redefinition of a low flow channel (thalwegs) following the passage of a sediment slug along a low sinuosity sand or gravel bed river (vii) Bega River, NSW and (viii) Pages River, Hunter Catchment, NSW; (e) reformation of discontinuous watercourses and swamps after incision of a valley fill swamp (ix) Wolumla Creek, Bega Catchment, NSW in 1998 and in (x) 2009; (f) reformation of thalwegs in braided rivers following the passage of a sediment slug (xi, xii) Waipaoa Catchment, New Zealand; and (g) reconnection of floodplains and cutoffs along a meandering fine‐grained river (xiii) Wingecaribee River, NSW. Photos: (i) © Queensland State Library, (ii–xii) K. Fryirs.
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Components of the river recovery diagram. [Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2005 Blackwell Publications]
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Examples of where river recovery has been enhanced by management intervention, then an opt‐out strategy to allow the river to self‐heal. (a) Recovery of a meandering gravel bed river; the Gloucester River, NSW. (i) In the late 1990s T‐jacks were installed along an overwidened channel with an eroding concave bank. These structures ‘float’ and are designed to trap sediment and induce bench formation. Riparian replanting accompanied this strategy. Management agencies opted‐out of further work. By 2015 (same view) (ii) the reach is largely unrecognizable. The channel has contracted, a range of geomorphic units has reformed or emerged (i.e., pools) and riparian vegetation has recovered. Management of exotic species is the only form of ongoing maintenance. Photos: (i) K. Fryirs, (ii) F. Hancock, NSW DPI. (b) Recovery of a wandering gravel bed river; Pappinbarra and Bellinger Catchments, northern NSW. (iii) Many wandering gravel bed rivers in the Pappinbarra Catchment are highly degraded with sediment slugs clogging channels and artificial channels being cut through them. (iv) Installation of wood structures and replanting of riparian and instream corridors along the Never Never River, Bellinger Catchment in the late 1990s and early 2000s has resulted in the reinstatement of a multiple‐channel network with significant geomorphic and ecological integrity. This is Example 3 used in Figure . Photos: (iii–iv) K. Fryirs.
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Example of a geomorphology action priority plan based on assessment of geomorphic river condition and recovery potential using the River Styles framework. This example is for the entire Hunter Valley, a 22,000 km2 catchment on the central coast of NSW. This type of work has now been completed across NSW for regional river management planning and assessment. Image: © NSW Department of Primary Industries (Office of Water) and reproduced with permission.
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Example of a catchment‐based river recovery potential map for Bega catchment, South Coast, NSW Australia. [Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2005 Blackwell Publications; Ref , Copyright 2005 John Wiley & Sons]
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An example of how a catchment‐scale sediment budget and associated analysis of (dis)connectivity can be used to assess river recovery potential. This example is for the Bega catchment, NSW, Australia. The thickness of the streamline segment represents the volume of sediment stores in the in‐channel zone. As sediments in these stores are readily transported, they are available for reworking and supply to downstream reaches. Some reaches (e.g., a) require sediment from upstream to recover. Other reaches do not require sediment from upstream because they are either in good condition (e.g., b) or are already oversupplied (e.g., c). The (dis)connectivity of sediment supply drives these interactions and assessments of recovery potential. Figure from Ref reproduced with permission, © John Wiley and Sons. Sediment sources basemap sourced from Ref Photos from K. Fryirs.
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Decision making tree for assessing the recovery potential of a reach and the associated prioritization as part of a conservation first recovery enhancement approach to river management. [Modified from Ref ]
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More complex river recovery diagram for reaches of partly confined river in Wollombi Brook, NSW, Australia. Based on information in Refs .
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