The EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy calls for greater efforts to restore freshwater ecosystems and the natural functions of rivers.
Besides calling for better implementation of existing legislation on freshwater, the Biodiversity Strategy sets the target to make at least 25 000 km of rivers free-flowing again by 2030, by removing primarily obsolete barriers and restoring floodplains and wetlands.
This document aims to support Member States and other actors involved in river restoration as they seek to achieve this target. The document seeks to clarify the terms and concepts of the target and its objectives, while recognising the need for such definitions to be translated into operational terms. It also provides general principles, and examples of existing approaches and methods that could be used to select and prioritise barriers that would need to be removed in order to reach the target of at least 25 000 km of free-flowing rivers in the EU.
Finally, the document sets out an overview of the different EU funding mechanisms that could support river restoration projects.
The notion of ‘free-flowing rivers’ is not defined in the existing EU environmental legislation.
Based on scientific definitions available, the Commission interprets ‘free-flowing rivers’ to mean rivers or other surface water bodies (e.g. lakes) that are not impaired by artificial barriers and not disconnected from their floodplain.
Given the characteristics of Europe’s river network, the high population density in some areas and the multiple demands on EU waters for different services, it would be very difficult to remove artificial obstacles along a river’s entire course.
This would also likely be incompatible with the maintenance of important river uses. The Commission thus intends to focus on stretches of rivers that can be restored to a free-flowing state, for the benefit of related habitats and species.
While in scientific terms full connectivity of a river system has four dimensions (longitudinal, lateral, vertical and temporal), the Commission proposes to focus efforts on barriers to longitudinal and lateral connectivity of river systems, as more experience and knowledge is available on these two dimensions.
Furthermore, the Biodiversity Strategy calls for a focus primarily on ‘obsolete barriers’, namely barriers that no longer fulfil their original purpose or are no longer needed. As regards the restoration of floodplains and wetlands, other complementary measures should be envisaged besides restoring lateral connectivity through the removal of artificial barriers. Such complementary measures could include, for example, re-meandering, restoration of oxbow lakes and restoration of riparian vegetation.
Altogether, the target of restoring rivers to a free-flowing state is designed to support and find synergies between efforts to achieve the Water Framework Directive objectives and the EU Birds and habitats Directives, with the overarching aim of boosting the restoration of freshwater ecosystems.
To combine the need for urgent action towards the 2030 target with a pragmatic and systematic approach, the document calls for efforts to be undertaken (or continue to be undertaken) to remove artificial barriers, wherever such opportunities exist, on the basis of current knowledge and experience.
In parallel, it is necessary to develop a set of harmonised criteria, according to which river stretches could be defined as free-flowing and thus count towards the 2030 goal.
This could be the subject of a joint process in which the Commission and the Member States work to achieve a harmonised approach at EU level.
Many restoration projects have already been implemented or are ongoing, and a number of existing methodologies can help prioritise sites in each Member State with a view to reaching the target. The document provides an overview of these methods and sets out some general principles for such prioritisation. These include the need to seek synergies with existing legislation or strategies, including with those applicable to protected areas and migratory species’ migration routes (e.g. in connection with the Eel Regulation and the Pan-European Action Plan for Sturgeons). They also include the need to consider existing uses, maximising co-benefits and avoiding as much as possible significant adverse effects on sustainable uses.
Furthermore, good prioritisation and planning of action require robust data. In this context, actions to fill gaps in knowledge (e.g. on barriers’ mapping) can be undertaken in parallel, to support not only the achievement of the Biodiversity Strategy’s target but also a better implementation of EU legislation in general.
The document also provides an overview of the main EU funding instruments that can support river restoration projects. Member States are encouraged to consider such funding sources when planning for river restoration. They are also encouraged to integrate water-related objectives into relevant sectoral planning instruments (e.g. European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund national programmes, CAP plans) to ensure appropriate financing for river restoration projects.