Socio-environmental implications of process-based restoration strategies in large rivers: should we remove novel ecosystems along the Rhône (France)?

Abstract

River restoration efforts require interdisciplinary approaches involving fluvial geomorphology, hydraulic engineering, ecology, sedimentology, chemistry, social geography, and sociology. We investigated the functioning of artificial structures called “Casiers Girardon” (groyne fields) in the Rhône River. We assessed potential benefits and risks linked to removing the Rhône groyne fields in a restoration context, with particular focus on the potential for increased bank erosion. Hydraulic, morphological, chemical, ecological, and social issues resulting from dismantlement were studied for terrestrialized and aquatic Casiers Girardon. Only 10% of Casiers Girardon have maintained their aquatic features, whereas most of the Casiers are terrestrialized. Our results help to confirm the effectiveness of restoration actions; however, they also indicate uncertainties and additional knowledge needs, especially in regard to potential incompatibilities between Casier restoration and conservation. Then, an interdisciplinary conceptual model was developed to identify interventions to be considered in Casiers Girardon, according to their terrestrialization rate and physiochemical characteristics (connectivity, amount of gravel vs. fine sediment, contamination level). This model synthetizes scientific results and expert judgment and provides management recommendations based on ecological and sociological expectations about the restoration of Casiers Girardon. The model highlights high heterogeneity in functioning and ecological potential between terrestrialized and aquatic Casiers. Dismantling of terrestrialized Casiers has strong potential to provide multiple benefits, whereas aquatic Casiers could be maintained as valuable backwaters. The managing guidelines for the Casiers Girardon of the Rhône River should be adapted according to local conditions, as well as expected benefits and needs, and conducted in co-ordination with all actors involved in and affected by the restoration.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Agence de l’Eau Rhône-Méditerrannée & Corse and Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR) for their financial support and collaboration. We also thank Groupe de Recherche Rhône Alpes sur les Infrastructures et l’Eau (GRAIE) and Zone Atelier Bassin du Rhône (ZABR), and in particular, Anne Clemens. Thanks to Antonin Vienney, Lucille Priour, Patrick Modrak, Oriane Villet and Cécile Claret for their support on field work and sample analysis.

Funding

This work was funded by the Labex DRIIHM, French programme “Investissements d’Avenir” (ANR-11-LABX-0010) which is managed by the ANR, within the Observatoire Hommes-Milieux Vallée du Rhône (OHM VR).

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Correspondence to Herve Piégay.

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Thorel, M., Piégay, H., Barthelemy, C. et al. Socio-environmental implications of process-based restoration strategies in large rivers: should we remove novel ecosystems along the Rhône (France)?. Reg Environ Change 18, 2019–2031 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-018-1325-7

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Keywords

  • River restoration
  • Risk analysis
  • Infrastructure removal
  • Interdisciplinary assessment