Integrated Research and Management of Rivers

Bridges vol. 40, July 2014 / Feature Article

By Helmut Habersack, Christine Sindelar, Angelika Riegler, and Bernhard Schober

Integrated research and management of rivers is of fundamental importance to the natural world and to human life. Thus, a sound scientific basis is essential to achieve sustainable management of the rivers, leading to win-win solutions. This article provides information on some recent activities in Austria, the Danube River Basin, the World´s Large Rivers Initiative, and existing cooperations with the US in this context.

Danube River Research and Management (DREAM)

The Danube River provides people of the Danube River Basin and surrounding regions with numerous benefits such as a water supply, food, hydropower, navigation, irrigation, ecosystem services, and recreation. The Danube is fundamental to life in this region and historically has had major cultural significance. However, the Danube is currently threatened by unsustainable overexploitation, increased human pressure on its catchment area, and increased floods and droughts at least partly induced by climate change.

These stresses have led to changes in the floodplain morphology, pollution, degradation of aquatic habitats, changes in fish communities, alterations in overall agricultural production systems, and population movements. All of these changes have had dramatic impacts on many characteristis of the Danube region.

There is an urgent need to integrate the use and the protection of the Danube River in sustainable ways.  Research is fundamental to designing monitoring strategies, modelling, and engineering solutions that will improve the situation and ensure a healthy balance between economic use and environmental protection of the Danube River. These efforts will be closely related to the Danube River Basin Management Plan.

Legal boundary conditions include the EU - Water Framework Directive 2000 (WFD), EU - Floods Directive 2007, EU NAIADES / Navigation, Korridor 7 2008, EU - Renewable Energy Directive 2009.

The Integrated Danube River Basin Management (based on the WFD) has to maintain or restore/rehabilitate the basic functions of the Danube River (in a dynamic, spatial, and temporal context), including biodiversity and ecosystem services. The intention is to avoid single-aim infrastructure development projects and strategies and to integrate ecological functionality, based on environmental impact assessment (EIA), with economic uses. Here the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) is responsible and should play an important role in DREAM.

Research into river processes, preservation, and restoration, and an improved understanding of river-related factors are prerequisites to reaching sustainable implementation of Danube River Basin Management.

In order to achieve Integrated Flood Risk Management and fulfill the EU Floods Directive, which also regulates the broader activities of the Danube River Basin and aims to reduce flood-borne negative impacts on human health, environment, cultural heritage, and economic activities, research is necessary to harmonize data, improve calculation procedures, derive inundation maps, and design flood-protection measures.

The Renewable Energy Directive and Climate Change discussion raised the possibility of future development of hydropower in the Danube River Basin. Thus, scientific investigations are essential to developing new types of hydropower plants that can, for example, allow a sediment and biota continuum.           

Development of Inland Navigation is another area of economic interest, as well as being an environmentally friendly mode of transport. Research is required on issues such as how to develop new types of river engineering measures that will increase water depth while, at the same time, stopping river bed degradation and improving the ecological state.

Optimizing river engineering measures will entail infrastructural needs such as:  performing research on large-scale hydraulic models, computer simulation tools, field study sites, and interaction between institutions involved in Danube River research.

Themes to be studied based on DREAM

Project DREAM will provide an overarching infrastructure for a set of interconnected research topics. These topics will cover several disciplines, from basic research (to be represented by advanced hydraulic labs and sophisticated 3-D models of high computational technology) to applied research (providing field data to mitigate hydrological extremes and to improve existing situations in water regimes, sediment regime, flood risk, drought problems, revision of bioengineering measures, restoration of streams and flood plains, etc.).

The following themes can be studied in cooperation with the partner countries and institutions using the DREAM infrastructure:

o   basic research regarding sediment transport, flow conditions, ecology, human impacts and possible future measures

o   integrated flood management (dams, mobile flood protection etc.)

o   river engineering (focusing on sediment regime)

o   renewable energy (especially hydropower)

o   traffic and transport (infrastructure of the Danube waterway, and navigation)

o   river ecology (river restoration)

o   development of riverine landscapes.

Aims of the project

a)    An important aim is to enable research on hydrodynamic, sediment transport, morphodynamic, and ecological processes in the various reaches of the Danube River by means of adequate hydraulic laboratories that provide a significant discharge (up to 10 m³/s without pumping) and space (large scale models).

b)    On the basis of an improved understanding of the processes, derived from large-scale physical models in the labs, computer-based simulations should improve, leading to hybrid models. A further aim is to establish commonly agreed upon field study sites and stations along the Danube River for calibrating and validating physical and computer-based models and for developing and testing advanced river engineering measures under 1:1 conditions.

c)     The cooperation of research institutions and laboratories along the Danube River is essential to improving scientific progress and stimulating the transfer of information from Basic Research to the Knowledge Society.

DREAM will lead to basic improvements in research infrastructure and cooperation between research institutions in the Danube basin. The two new laboratories, combined with the existing ones, offer a unique opportunity for large-scale physical laboratory investigations involving both fundamental and applied research.

Responsible River Modeling Center (RRMC)

In the framework of the flagship EUSDR project, a novel Responsible River Modeling Center (RRMC) will be constructed in Vienna between the Danube and the Danube Canal. The RRMC comprises physical modeling in indoor and outdoor laboratories, as well as numerical modeling. The intake of water from the Danube permits large-scale experiments, with discharges of up to 10 m³/s available in the laboratory without pumping, by taking advantage of the water surface slope between the Danube and the Danube Canal. Within Europe, this quantity of water flow is unique. The RRMC meets the criteria for tackling burning issues of rivers as natural habitats, waterways, energy sources, and recreational areas. The combination of physical and numerical modeling, basic research under controlled laboratory conditions, and field studies will ultimately lead to a predictive understanding of the complex physical and biological processes of rivers. The RRMC therefore contributes to the broad field of Water Sustainability, which is recognized in the US as one of the Grand Challenges. With the construction of the RRMC, Vienna wants to establish itself as one of the leading research centers in Europe for river research and fluid dynamics, aiming to cooperate with US universities, laboratories, and scientists.

UNESCO Chair on Integrated River Research and Management, UNESCO World´s Large Rivers Initiative, and World’s Large Rivers Conference

The first World’s Large Rivers Conference manifested itself in 2011 at the University of Life Sciences and Natural Resources, Vienna, by awarding the “UNESCO Chair on Integrated River Research and Management,” solemnly initiated on June 2, 2014. This conference represented an important step towards a global and holistic analysis of large rivers and their potential behavior with respect to climate change and other human impacts.

Until that time, there existed no global, holistic analysis of the World’s Large Rivers (WLRs) and the potential future changes of these rivers related to climate change and other anthropogenic stresses. Therefore, the UNESCO Chair on Integrated River Research and Management aims to focus on the salient issues in this thematic field. This Chair is the first one in Austria to deal with scientific/technical matters and the first one in UNESCO to concretely focus on river research.

Establishment of the UNESCO Chair at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, provides valuable support and coordination of the World’s Large Rivers Initiative (WLRI), which was initiated by the Chairholder Prof. Habersack (see below). The central outcome of the World's Large Rivers Conference 2011 was the “Vienna Declaration,” a document adopted by more than 450 participants from 73 countries. This Declaration recommended: a) a multidisciplinary international Initiative as the  basis for a global scientific analysis of the World’s Large Rivers and their associated catchments, and b) the fostering of integrated, sustainable management strategies. For that to happen, the Chair will launch a project dealing with the status and future of the World’s Large Rivers. Also within the scope of this Chair is the organization of future international World’s Large Rivers conferences (for example, the 2014 conference in Manaus at the Amazon River in Brazil that will link river research and management as well as education and awareness related to large rivers.

Based on the first World´s Large Rivers Conference, a new UNESCO/IHP Initiative (WLRI - World’s Large Rivers Initiative) was adopted during the XXIst session of the Intergovernmental Council of the International Hydrological Program in Paris on June 20, 2014. The WLRI will be further developed and the global network of programs and partners will be strengthened by including leading US scientists.

Description and activities

Within the Danube Strategy, the following Danube River Research and Management activities should be supported:

Act. 1:    Construction of two large Responsible River Modelling Centers/hydraulic and environmental engineering laboratories (up to 10000 l/s flow capacity), one in the upper/middle part of the Danube and one in the lower part (see Figure 1).  The construction of two labs (upstream section/downstream section) will also enable the modelling of gravel bed vs. sand bed rivers, up to 10 times the slope difference, and a variety of problem areas.

Act. 2:    Cooperation of existing hydraulic engineering laboratoriesfor improving expertise in all partner countries. An upgrade of laboratory instrumentation will improve the ability of modern scale models to solve river engineering challenges. Cooperation with the large-scale laboratories (activity 1) is intended.

Act. 3:    Formation of a cluster/network of river engineering simulation tools to be used by Danube countries (with common software development and implementation), being applied in computer clusters and on individual servers.

Act. 4:    Establishment of a network of field study sites along the Danube River and its tributaries (each country should nominate a certain river stretch, specific problem area, work program, etc.) for process analysis, model calibration and validation, AND test of advanced river engineering solutions.

Act. 5:    Construction and operation of a research vessel with a diving shaft for the whole Danube area (e.g., operated from a Serbian base) to enable river bed research at various parts of the Danube river.

Act. 6:    Establishment of a network of existing and extended Danube River Research Institutions throughout all riparian countries, including a strong link to management and society (Aim c above: "… from Basic Research to Knowledge Society").

Collaboration with the US

Meeting the challenges in the field of water sustainability will require collaboration across disciplines at the international level. The University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (“BOKU”) has partnered with the University of Minnesota, where Prof. Habersack was a visiting professor in 2009. They also partnered with the University of California at Berkeley. Recently, the BOKU Institute of Water Management, Hydrology and Hydraulic Engineering established contact with the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (“SAFL”) of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. SAFL serves as a “role model” for the future RRMC not only because SAFL uses water from the nearby Missisippi River just as the RRMC will take water from the Danube, but also because SAFL has successfully made the transition from a pure physical laboratory to a combined physical and computational research center.

The ties between these two research institutions have been strengthened within the last year. A joint basic project on air-water mixtures is currently under preparation. BOKU has invited the director of SAFL, Professor Fotis Sotiropoulos, to give a seminar about the research work of SAFL. The visit, which will take place in September 2014 in Vienna, will also provide an opportunity to discuss future collaboration.

This article was generated by the Christian Dopller Laboratory for Advanced Methods in River Monitoring, Modeling and Engineering, and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, Austria.