Previously published at Freshwaterblog.net
Increased awareness of ecological issues in rivers with regulated water flows calls for better international understanding about how the hydropower industry might be made more ‘environmentally friendly’ through policy and practice.
In May 2017, a workshop was held in Brussels to discuss these issues. The workshop was organised by the International Energy Agency Hydropower Technology Collaboration Programme and the European Commission Directorate General for Research and Innovation.
Entitled ‘Hydropower and Fish – Research and Innovation in the context of the European Policy Framework‘, the workshop was organised to address the European research and legislation relevant for hydropower production and to highlight its impacts on fish populations in regulated rivers. In addition to presentations and discussions, delegates undertook a field visit to the Ham hydropower plant on the Albert Canal.
“Where do we go from here?”
This was the question posed by Piotr Tulej, the head of the DG RTD Unit at the European Commission. In his opening speech at the workshop. Speaking to 80 representatives from 21 European countries, with expertise in water management, research, policy, manufacturing and industry. His speech outlined some of the key issues in contemporary water management and hydropower. On one hand, there is strong – and growing – demand for renewable energy across the world; on the other, fish ecology and riverine habitats are often strongly – and negatively – impacted by hydropower development.
The workshop brought together representatives from many large European research programmes, including as AMBER, FITHydro, Hyperbole, Sed-Net, LIFE and BioFresh. New innovations were presented, demonstrating the wide and important range of new technologies for ecosystem monitoring. Some of the more unusual and innovative techniques included data sampling using unmanned aircrafts and robotic fishes.
Another presentation highlighted that the role of storable hydropower in Europe may change as a result of the speed at which wind and solar energy has been adopted in the continent’s power network. More dynamic production schemes lead to rapid changes in river flow, which can have negative ecological impacts, such as habitat loss, particularly for fish. The consequences of such so-called hydropeaking was highlighted as a main future research area.
Other important research topics presented included strategies for ensuring the safe downstream migration of fishes past hydropower structures and turbines, and monitoring approaches to assess fish pass efficiency. Overall, there was a focus on river connectivity along entire catchments and river basins, instead of single, isolated projects.
Standardised monitoring and mitigation approaches
Discussions at the workshop highlighted the need for Europe-wide standardisation of monitoring programs and mitigation measures for hydropower impacts. This in order to understand and assess the impacts of management actions. One key aspect of this is to develop standardised approaches to assess residual flows and environmental flows in rivers affected by hydropower developments. The expression “environmental requirements” must be emphasised, underlining that not only fish, but overall biodiversity, is important to fulfill the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD).
In recent decades, a variety of modelling tools have been developed to describe the different impacts from hydropower on fish. One important message from the workshop was that modelling tools should be included in the management models in order to achieve realistic goals. Such approaches need to be scalable from single topic models to holistic analyses of large river catchments. This is crucial because many fishes migrate over long distances across political and management borders. Discussions also emphasised the importance of implementing existing research and available knowledge on hydropower impacts.
Balancing perspectives on water management for hydropower and fish
Overall, discussions at the workshop highlighted that future research, policy and management on hydropower and fish must seek to find a balance between renewable energy production, and the ecological health and status of impacted rivers in Europe.
Panel discussions suggested that reductions in hydropower production are often expensive to governments. This since hydropower is one of the most efficient ways to generate electricity – and may cause shifts to fossil fuel methods of energy production. While negative ecological impacts from hydropower on fish are highly pronounced across Europe, the closing panel debate emphasised that scientific researchers, water managers and the hydropower industry must establish better long-term relationships together in order to mitigate ecological impacts.
One outcome of such collaboration could be common criteria and rating or indexes for viable fish populations in regulated rivers, and handbooks for assessing and implementing mitigating measures in order to obtain “good ecological status or potential” according to the WFD. Future workshops are proposed to continue discussions on these important topics.