Why are intermittent rivers so challenging for science, management and policy and what can we do about it?

By Catherine Leigh

Intermittent rivers are among the most prevalent type of flowing waterway in the world, but they don’t always flow! In fact, they periodically stop flowing and dry up, shifting repeatedly through aquatic and terrestrial states.

Photos: The Clauge River, in the Jura range in eastern France at the beginning of the 2014 drying (top) and flowing periods (bottom). Credit: B. Launay.

This raises several questions and poses major challenges to scientists, water managers and policy-makers.

How do biotic communities persist in such dynamic environments? Should we assess their ecological condition when they are flowing or dry or both? How do we define and protect them legally? Are the ecological models, management practices and policies developed for rivers that always flow (‘perennial rivers’) applicable to intermittent ones?

In other words, how much do we actually know and understand about these systems given the bulk of research has been done on perennial rivers and we’re only just starting to catch up?

To tackle these questions and provide a path forward, Thibault Datry (Irstea, France), Ken Fritz (US EPA) and I joined forces with the Freshwater Biology team in late 2013 to guest edit a Special Issue dedicated to intermittent river research. Over the next two years we compiled works from leaders at the cutting edge of this dynamic field of freshwater science. Our hard work paid off and I’m pleased to announce that…

The complete Issue is out now! Thirteen outstanding new papers showcase the latest developments, spanning observational case studies from across the globe, to field and laboratory experiments and reviews.

Number of publications on selected intermittent river research topics in freshwater and ecology journals, and Freshwater Biology specifically, through time. This figure appeared in Datry, Fritz and Leigh, 2016 “Challenges, developments and perspectives in intermittent river ecology” Freshwater Biology 61: 1171–1180 and uses data sourced from Leigh et al., 2016 “Ecological research and management of intermittent rivers: an historical review and future directions” Freshwater Biology 61: 1181–1199.

Ultimately the Issue acts as a guide for our future research and management agenda, a vital need in this era of increasing flow intermittence as droughts escalate in both frequency and intensity and we continue to extract water from rivers for our own use.

After years of near-obscurity, the ecological study of intermittent rivers is today not a ‘dry’ topic but one that is fresh, multifaceted, and trending upward!

And best of all, the Issue’s content will be completely FREE to access and download from now until 31st August 2016! So get reading and enjoy!


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