RRC Conference - A Consultants Perspective

River Restoration Centre 17th Annual Network Conference

Planning delivery and evaluation of our rivers: challenges and choices

by Suzie Maas, Atkins (Suzie.Maas@atkinsglobal.com)

This year’s conference in Blackpool was again very well attended by over 300 delegates from a range of backgrounds. It is always great to see so many familiar faces but also meet an array of new people who are undertaking a lot of the river restoration in the UK.  The enthusiasm and commitment is fantastic and this was very much conveyed in all of the finalists’ presentations for the UK River Prize.  The Cumbrian Rivers Eden, Derwent and Kent were the eventual winners and having been involved with the restoration visions over 6 years ago it was brilliant to see so many sites had already been restored.  Congratulations to all those involved in making it happen! 
The conference highlighted the very familiar, but still very pertinent challenges to restoration, including funding, landowner acceptance and catchment conflicts for example.  There were also suggestions that we could be bolder in our approach to restoration, that we have a tendency to be too cautious and that we need to give our rivers space and time to develop. All very true in certain contexts.
There were plenty of presentations however that offered positive choices to some of these challenges.  Funding will always be limited but with collaborative working and catchment partnerships a lot can be achieved.  Volunteers will play a greater role in restoration, not least through landowner liaison and data collection but probably most importantly through rallying the community to obtain their buy in and help gain their ongoing respect and maintenance of rivers in future.  Working with natural processes and natural flood management were common themes; and emphasis was placed on the importance of assisting natural recovery, rather than full scale restoration.  These themes raise questions though: how do we prioritise schemes, demonstrate the benefits of our work and ensure that investment is distributed proportionally to need?  Perhaps we need to be more savvy about where we spend the money and how.  More often than not spend is targeted opportunistically and largely determined by land owner opinion, rather than ecological need.  Rivers Trusts and Fisheries Groups do a great deal to influence landowners and help secure restoration opportunities.  However, there is also a role to play for others, including consultants where more specialist expertise or innovation is required in the more complex or high risk sites and academics including MSc and PhD studies for post project monitoring – still a very evident gap in our restoration process.
The Future
River Management in the UK has come a long way over the past couple of decades but there is more to do.  As I write this on the eve of the European Union Referendum, I wonder how things may change.  Applied geomorphology and ecology, certainly in consultancy, has entered the mainstream since the introduction of the Water Framework Directive.  Although slow to take shape, the Directive has fundamentally shifted our national attitude to river management.  Ecological requirement and morphological structure are now, quite rightly leading considerations for all river management activities.  However, pressures from abstraction, new flood defences and infrastructure projects are ongoing and the degree to which these impact rivers probably far outweigh the length we are currently restoring.  So, it is also our responsibility to ensure that we conserve the best and protect and mitigate the rest.  Hopefully whatever the outcome on the 23 June is, conservation and restoration is on the agenda and our rivers continue to thrive.   

You can view all of the Conference outputs here

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