The Research Plan

In Canada and globally, rivers are threatened by increasing demands for water, development and other activities in the watershed, and our changing climate.  While our understanding of how rivers work continues to advance, uptake of innovative science for the protection and management of rivers and their resources is lagging around the world.  A sustainable future for our rivers requires that researchers work collaboratively with management to ensure that the latest science and tools for understanding changes of consequence in rivers are used and that adaptive management approaches are in place to respond to increasing pressures on these systems and to new knowledge and technologies.

Our Research Priorities

CRI’s research plan focuses on protecting and improving the health of rivers by conducting the innovative science needed to create a paradigm shift in river management.  This will be accomplished by:

  • Developing and promoting meaningful indicators and thresholds of change for river ecosystems;
  • Understanding sustainable links between water flow and biological processes in rivers;
  • Advancing monitoring and management practices related to how human activities affect river ecosystems.

Research Goals

  • Ensure more effective and consistent use of report cards for assessing river health.
  • Outcome goal: Conduct science to support the development of reporting tools that integrate ecological condition and reflect meaningful change in river ecosystems.
     
  • Increase awareness of the importance of flow, the ecological services it supports, and the demand for this knowledge in the management of river ecosystems.
  • Outcome goal: Innovative, world-leading research on the key links between water flow and biological processes in river ecosystems.
     
  • Improve national and international approaches and capacity for assessing and monitoring river ecosystem health.
  • Outcome goal: Techniques that best reflect the health and sustainability of river ecosystems including improved assessment of cumulative effects in Canada and internationally.
     
  • Achieve increased use of leading science in policies for water management.
  • Outcome goal: Develop the innovative approaches and mechanisms for science to be quickly and efficiently integrated into river management.

Research Objectives

The priority areas of the CRI’s Research Plan were developed in consultation with our partners to support the science vision.  For the next 5 years, the CRI will embark on an innovative, interdisciplinary, and collaborative science programme with the following outcomes:

  • meaningful indicators and thresholds of change for river ecosystems (Core Objective #1);
  • identifying the critical links between the physical nature of flowing water and its biological processes from headwaters to estuaries (Core Objective #2);
  • innovative management and monitoring standards and practices, including the concept of cumulative effects assessment, to ensure the ecological integrity of river ecosystems (Core Objective #3);

Core Objective #1:  To establish meaningful indicators and thresholds of change in river ecosystems to support and promote sustainable river management

Key Challenges:
Rivers and estuaries are dynamic systems that change over time and space.  However, drawing conclusions about the drivers of ecosystem change is frustrated by a lack of consistently measured, appropriate, and reliable data.  River monitoring is currently poorly served by a plethora of physical, chemical and biological observation methods, some of which are redundant or not reflective of key aspects of river health.  Managers generally rely too much on the easy but well-established indices of status, such as water chemistry, for the purposes of reporting and decision-making.  Biological observations are mostly ignored despite the fact that biology is often a key protection goal, e.g., biodiversity, and that they are more integrative of changes over broader spatial scales.  Even when indices from several disciplines are monitored, they are poorly integrated and considered too difficult to interpret.

Key Opportunity:
A better understanding of the dynamic and natural spatial and temporal variability of river ecosystems to develop meaningful indicators and thresholds of change, and to embed the ecosystem concept in the management of rivers.

Supporting Statements:

  • Rivers are highly dynamic systems temporally and spatially.
  • Robust indicators of change must be linked to an understanding of how ecosystems respond to diverse stressors.
  • Indicators of change must be derived from a clear understanding of pathways connecting human and natural drivers of change to changes of concern.

The Research:
CRI researchers and their partners will generate information needed to develop meaningful indicators and thresholds of change in river ecosystems by developing:

  • Biomonitoring diagnostics that incorporate the function of flow in river ecosystems.
  • The understanding of exposure thresholds for fish in flowing water environments.
  • Indicators of flowing water ecosystem’s function and status.
  • Indicators of river channel change.

Specific Outputs:

  • Published manuscripts on thresholds and indices of change for river ecosystems.
  • A published compilation of our new findings as "The River Manager’s Toolkit for Assessment and Monitoring."
  • Graduating the next generation of scientists and training professionals with these leading science skills.

Core Objective #2:  Understanding the links between water flow and biological processes in river ecosystems

Key Challenge:
A river ecosystem is the slow to fast moving waters flowing through landscapes to the sea, and it has biological elements and processes (ecosystem goods and services) that vary across spatial and temporal scales.  The dynamic nature of rivers stems from their flowing environments.  The notion of river ecosystems as dynamic, yet predictable and highly connected, is at the heart of river ecology, but absent from current river management.  Flow is often highly altered, with limited consideration given to the natural flows needed to sustain specific ecosystems. As a result of poor knowledge of flow-ecology relationships, we are unable to articulate the nature of sustainable flow requirements.

Key Opportunity:
A better understanding of how water flow directly and indirectly affects ecosystem goods and services in rivers and estuaries to ensure that rivers are managed in a sustainable manner.

Supporting Statements:

  • Flows include surface water, groundwater, and tidal fluctuations, and extreme events (floods, droughts).
  • River and estuarine flow controls ecosystem structure and function.
  • Flows produce direct and indirect effects on ecosystem goods and services.

The Research:
CRI researchers and their partners will generate information needed to understand how flow influences river ecosystem goods and services by studying how:

  • Winter low flows and ice affect survival of fish and invertebrates.
  • Landscapes regulate flow, thermal regimes, and habitats of fish.
  • Flow regulates nutrient flux in small agricultural catchments.
  • Flow sustains biodiversity in fresh waters and estuaries.
  • Flow regulates sediment flux and controls habitats in large rivers.
  • Groundwater influences dynamics of river flow and temperature flow and controls habitats for aquatic life.
  • Flow and hydraulics affect the distribution of aquatic habitats.

Specific outputs:

  • Reviews of current and future requirements of our priority areas in leading science and management journals.
  • Manuscripts on how flow affects the fundamental structure and processes of river, lake, groundwater, and estuarine ecosystems.
  • Graduating the next generation of scientists and training professionals with these leading science skills.

Core Objective #3:  Developing innovative management standards and practices, including the concept of cumulative effects assessment, required to ensure the ecological integrity of river ecosystems

Key Challenge:
Rivers and estuaries respond to both natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and effects of these disturbances occur at many scales through alterations in complex processes within the system.  While many human activities occur in watersheds, the effect of the combination of these disturbances (multiple stressors) is rarely considered in river sciences and management and therefore not well understood.  The implications of these multiple and cumulative effects is essential to understand to ensure sustainability of river ecosystems.

Key Opportunity:
An improved understanding of how rivers and estuaries respond to multiple stressors, and of how to identify when human activities start to impair a system’s normal performance.

Supporting Statements:

  • River ecosystems are shaped by multiple natural and anthropogenic stressors.
  • Human activities can reduce the resilience of ecosystems to respond to natural stressors.
  • Multiple stressors will act together and over time to impair ecosystems.
  • River and estuarine ecosystems possess some inherent resilience to disturbance.
  • The ecological integrity of these systems is compromised when they can no longer maintain normal conditions (resilience is exceeded).
  • We do not yet fully understand how the various interacting physical, chemical, biological, and social characteristics of river systems contribute to their resilience.


The Research:
CRI researchers and their partners will generate information needed to sustain a river’s health through leading and paradigm-shifting research:

  • To parse individual and linked effects of chemicals in multiple stressor environments of flowing waters in urban and agricultural settings.
  • To understand function of nutrients and thresholds of their additions in flowing waters of urban, agricultural, and industrial forest landscapes.
  • To develop management tools for assessment and prediction of ecosystem health at multiple spatial and temporal scales of a river’s watershed.
  • On social dimensions of river management and governance processes in a watershed context.


Specific outputs:

  • Manuscripts advancing river and water management in general beyond the current norm to incorporate the ecosystem and concept of cumulative effects.
  • Distribution and application of new tools (e.g. THREATS software) for water managers.
  • Graduating the next generation of scientists and training professionals with these leading science skills.