What is river health?


Correspondence: R. H. Norris, Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology, University of Canberra, ACT 2601, Canberra, Australia. E-mail: Richard_Norris@enterprise.canberra.edu.au


1. Traditionally the assessment of river water quality has been based solely on the measurement of physical, chemical and some biological characteristics. While these measurements may be efficient for regulating effluent discharges and protecting humans, they are not very useful for large-scale management of catchments or for assessing whether river ecosystems are being protected.

2. Measurements of aquatic biota, to identify structural or functional integrity of ecosystems, have recently gained acceptance for river assessment. Empirical evidence from studies of river ecosystems under stress suggests that a small group of biological ecosystem-level indicators can assess river condition. However, physical and chemical features of the environment affect these indicators, the structure and function of which may be changed by human activities.

3. The term ‘river health’, applied to the assessment of river condition, is often seen as being analogous with human health, giving many a sense of understanding. Unfortunately, the meaning of ‘river health’ remains obscure. It is not clear what aspects of river health sets of ecosystem-level indicators actually identify, nor how physical, chemical and biological characteristics may be integrated into measures rather than just observations of cause and effect.

4. Increased examination of relationships between environmental variables that affect aquatic biota, such as habitat structure, flow regime, energy sources, water quality and biotic interactions and biological condition, are required in the study of river health.