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1. This paper introduces a new approach for setting streamflow-based river ecosystem management targets and this method is called the ‘Range of Variability Approach’ (RVA). The proposed approach derives from aquatic ecology theory concerning the critical role of hydrological variability, and associated characteristics of timing, frequency, duration, and rates of change, in sustaining aquatic ecosystems. The method is intended for application on rivers wherein the conservation of native aquatic biodiversity and protection of natural ecosystem functions are primary river management objectives.

2. The RVA uses as its starting point either measured or synthesized daily streamflow values from a period during which human perturbations to the hydrological regime were negligible. This streamflow record is then characterized using thirty-two different hydrological parameters, using methods defined in Richter et al. (1996). Using the RVA, a range of variation in each of the thirty-two parameters, e.g. the values at ± 1 standard deviation from the mean or the twenty-fifth to seventy-fifth percentile range, are selected as initial flow management targets.

3. The RVA targets are intended to guide the design of river management strategies (e.g. reservoir operations rules, catchment restoration) that will lead to attainment of these targets on an annual basis. The RVA will enable river managers to define and adopt readily interim management targets before conclusive, long-term ecosystem research results are available. The RVA targets and management strategies should be adaptively refined as suggested by research results and as needed to sustain native aquatic ecosystem biodiversity and integrity.