Articles | Volume 14, issue 7
Research article
12 Apr 2017
Research article |  | 12 Apr 2017

Hydromorphological restoration stimulates river ecosystem metabolism

Benjamin Kupilas, Daniel Hering, Armin W. Lorenz, Christoph Knuth, and Björn Gücker

Abstract. Both ecosystem structure and functioning determine ecosystem status and are important for the provision of goods and services to society. However, there is a paucity of research that couples functional measures with assessments of ecosystem structure. In mid-sized and large rivers, effects of restoration on key ecosystem processes, such as ecosystem metabolism, have rarely been addressed and remain poorly understood. We compared three reaches of the third-order, gravel-bed river Ruhr in Germany: two reaches restored with moderate (R1) and substantial effort (R2) and one upstream degraded reach (D). Hydromorphology, habitat composition, and hydrodynamics were assessed. We estimated gross primary production (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER) using the one-station open-channel diel dissolved oxygen change method over a 50-day period at the end of each reach. Moreover, we estimated metabolic rates of the combined restored reaches (R1 + R2) using the two-station open-channel method. Values for hydromorphological variables increased with restoration intensity (D  <  R1  <  R2). Restored reaches had lower current velocity, higher longitudinal dispersion and larger transient storage zones. However, fractions of median travel time due to transient storage were highest in R1 and lowest in R2, with intermediate values in D. The share of macrophyte cover of total wetted area was highest in R2 and lowest in R1, with intermediate values in D. Station R2 had higher average GPP and ER than R1 and D. The combined restored reaches R1 + R2 also exhibited higher GPP and ER than the degraded upstream river (station D). Restoration increased river autotrophy, as indicated by elevated GPP : ER, and net ecosystem production (NEP) of restored reaches. Temporal patterns of ER closely mirrored those of GPP, pointing to the importance of autochthonous production for ecosystem functioning. In conclusion, high reach-scale restoration effort had considerable effects on river hydrodynamics and ecosystem functioning, which were mainly related to massive stands of macrophytes. High rates of metabolism and the occurrence of dense macrophyte stands may increase the assimilation of dissolved nutrients and the sedimentation of particulate nutrients, thereby positively affecting water quality.

Short summary
Modern ecosystem restoration should consider a wide range of environmental characteristics, including functional ones, such as rates and patterns of ecosystem metabolism. We show that hydromorphological river restoration enhanced habitat availability and abundance of macrophytes, promoting river primary productivity and respiration. Incorporating ecosystem functioning into monitoring programs enables a more holistic assessment of river health and a better understanding of restoration effects.
Final-revised paper