How to go with flow: river framework restores health and hope

Macquarie University/The Lighthouse
A river management framework developed at Macquarie University and now used on six continents has been recognised in the NSW Parliament’s 2022 Research Impact Showcase.

Macquarie University’s River Styles Framework – a management system devised to assess river health – underpins the science-based restoration and management of degraded river systems all over the world from Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin to America’s mighty Mississippi.

Developed by Professor Kirstie Fryirs from the School of Natural Sciences and fellow scientist Professor Gary Brierley, the River Styles Framework is one of three high impact Macquarie research projects being honoured by the NSW Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer in the showcase which is designed to highlight successful examples of high-impact engagement and collaboration between NSW Government agencies and universities.

.”The River Styles Framework is used to understand a river’s physical structure and function (geomorphology), how rivers evolve and change, and their current health status, so we can develop strategies for their recovery, rehabilitation and sustainable management,” says Professor Kirstie Fryirs.

“Recent flood events wreaking devastation across Australia’s east coast have highlighted the importance of understanding rivers, so we can better manage them in the future.”

International application and state-wide database

River Styles is being used to help conservation groups and government agencies manage rivers and catchments on six continents.

Locations where the Macquarie-developed system is being used include America’s iconic Colombia and Mississippi Rivers, India’s Ganga Basin, rivers in Brazil, Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin.

It’s exciting to identify new river styles, it’s like identifying a new species.

“More than 500 people worldwide have completed short courses to learn how to use the River Styles Framework,” says Fryirs.

River styles

Rare river form: The Mulwaree chain-of-ponds river in the NSW Southern Tablelands (pictured) is one of the rarest of 47 different river styles identified across the state.

The NSW Department of Planning and Environment now hosts the state’s River Styles database, which contains assessments on more than 225,000 kilometres of stream length across NSW collected during 20 years of research collaboration.

“The geomorphic style, condition and recovery potential of nearly every river across NSW has now been assessed and is in the database,” says Fryirs.

“Rivers have remarkable diversity; their riverbeds might be sandy or muddy or rocky, perhaps they flow down steep gorges or meander slowly across floodplains, they could have many channels, just one or no channel at all.”

She says the database is used to prioritise rivers for conservation and rehabilitation, and to identify rare and threatened river types and high ecological value aquatic ecosystems.

Rare rivers

The NSW River Styles database lists 47 different styles of river, including the Mulwaree Ponds, a rare ‘chain-of-ponds’ river in the Southern Tablelands comprising a series of large deep pools linked by swampy flow paths that only fill during rain.

“Most of the data has been verified in the field, and comes from locally-based experts with considerable knowledge of ‘their’ rivers,” says Fryirs.

The River Styles Framework’s flexibility can incorporate newly identified styles from anywhere in the world.

“It’s exciting to identify new river styles, it’s like identifying a new species,” she says.

“There is an incredible diversity out there and each different style has its own structure and function and needs fit-for-purpose management solutions.”

How assessments work

A River Styles assessment might start with remote sensing and aerial photographs, but these don’t give the full picture. “You can see a lot more when you go to the field,” she says.

She recalls assessing a river near Scone which appeared to be a meandering river that potentially could move laterally across the floodplain; but finding, on close inspection, that the river flows through ‘buried terraces’ – confined, hard boundaries of an ancient river floodplain.

Sometimes, erosion in the wrong places can pose a risk, but correctly assessing this river’s geomorphology showed there was no need to build expensive structures, because the river was already functioning as expected.

Improving river health

“The River Styles Framework has changed how we think about rivers, how we assess their physical health and how we triage and prioritise where the best return on investment can be achieved by working with the river, not against it,” says Fryirs.

Kirstie Fryiers River Styles Framework

International system: Professor Kirstie Fryirs (pictured) on the Okavango River in Botswana, is co-creator of the River Styles Framework now used on six continents.

In NSW, rivers in the Hunter catchment, the inland Murray-Murrumbidgee area and the Northern Tablelands were all assessed as being in poor condition at the beginning of this process, but many rivers now show signs of recovery.

Ongoing research led by Professor Fryirs and funded by the Australian Research Council, Landcare Australia and NSW Local Land Services is investigating the progress in river recovery up and down the eastern seaboard.

“The River Styles Framework is part of a transition in the industry of river management over the last few decades towards nature-based solutions,” she says.

The River Styles Framework featured in the NSW Parliament’s 2022 Research Impact Showcase hosted by NSW Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer on March 28, 2022.

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