1. Natural biogeochemical processes and diverse communities of aquatic biota regulate freshwater quantity and quality in ways that are not sufficiently acknowledged nor appreciated by the water resources management community. The establishment and enforcement of environmental flow requirements offer promising means to improve and care for these critical environmental services. This Special Issue provides new insights and novel techniques to determine, protect and restore ecologically and socially sustainable flow regimes, and thereby help achieve the water-related goals of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
2. Whilst alteration of flow, sediment, organic matter and thermal regimes interact to reduce biological diversity and the ecological integrity of freshwater ecosystems – and thereby degrade the properties and ecological services most valued by humans –‘environmental flows’ left in rivers, or restored to developed rivers, will sustain many ecological and societal values. The success of river protection and rehabilitation/restoration depends upon understanding and accurately modelling relationships between hydrological patterns, fluvial disturbance and ecological responses in rivers and floodplains.
3. This Special Issue presents new analytical and modelling approaches to support the development of hydro-ecological models and environmental flow standards at multiple spatial scales – applicable to all rivers in any economic and societal setting. Examples include the new framework Ecological Limits of Hydrologic Alteration (ELOHA) founded on hydrological classification and gradient analysis; ecological trait analysis; Bayesian hierarchical modelling; Bayesian Decision Networks; and Integrated Basin Flow Assessment (IBFA).
4. Advances in the allocation of flood flows along the River Murray in Australia, an Ecosystems Function Model (HEC-EFM) for the Bill Williams River restoration programme in Arizona (U.S.A), the European Water Framework Directive, and improved management of hydroelectric dams demonstrate the potential for significant ecological recovery following partial restoration of natural river flow regimes.
5. Based on contributions to this Special Issue, the action agenda of the 2007 Brisbane Declaration on environmental flows and the wider literature, we propose an invigorated global research programme to construct and calibrate hydro-ecological models and to quantify the ecological goods and services provided by rivers in contrasting hydro-climatic settings across the globe. A major challenge will be to find acceptable ways to manage rivers for multiple uses. Climate change intensifies the urgency. Environmental flows help to preserve the innate resilience of aquatic ecosystems, and thereby offer the promise of improved sustainability and wellbeing for people as well as for ecosystems.