Hervé Piegay, Research Director at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and  Dad Roux-Michollet from GRAIE (Groupe de Recherche Rhône Alpes sur les Infrastructures et l'Eau) talk about river management in France. 


Which protection strategies and tools are applied in France to better balance protection needs and human uses of rivers?

In France, the original intent of legislation regarding drinking water supply and anti-pollution efforts was established in 1964, allowing for the very first time to manage water within the administrative boundary of the water basins. Following this pioneer law, the 1992 Water Act has enforced balanced management of water resources and defined water as a common national heritage. It aimed to preserve aquatic ecosystems and wetlands, to protect water quality, and to promote the economic value of water. The concept of sustainable water management was then applied – without citing the term – a few months prior to the Rio Conference which popularized it. Ever since, a Masterplan for Water Development and Management (SDAGE “schéma directeur d'aménagement et de gestion des eaux“) has been designed every five years on the level of water basins to achieve specific objectives. Regarding the Rhône basin, the first SDAGE (1997) implemented the concept of the erodible river corridor. This concept is seeking to preserve bank erosion within a defined erodible corridor in order to maintain sediment transport and benefit the functioning of local ecosystems. Other recommendations were related to drift wood management and implemented using an online guideline based on a sectorized maintenance strategy. In the best-case scenario, wood jams are preserved or reintroduced for ecological purposes. If this is not possible, the wood is removed for public safety reasons. In 2009, the first planning documents circumscribed by the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) were approved in France, enhancing politics and actions to limit damage, regain water quality, and reach “good ecological state”. In 2014, the GEMAPI law was designed to modernize public policy and community involvement regarding ecosystem management and flood prevention. The GEMAPI also contributes to meet the WFD objectives considering both, ecological improvement and short-term human needs fulfillment (natural hazard management). Finally, new priorities have been defined in the Rhône basin 2016-2021 SDAGE, for example hydrological and morphological restoration that should create sustainable benefits for ecosystems and human activity through ecological services. Indeed, the SDAGE should help to restore or preserve a “good functioning corridor for rivers”, and to optimize current and future uses. A new guideline has been published to provide local river managers a new tool to balance protection needs and human uses of rivers.


How can the scientific community contribute to more effective river protection?

By describing, measuring and modeling river functioning, the scientists improve awareness and comprehension of human impacts on ecosystems and how to enhance river protection. The scientific community also provides knowledge leading to a better understanding of ecological responses to multiple stressors in a multi-scale context. The scientific community develops new tools and indicators to monitor restoration efficiency and assess success of such actions based on case-studies. Thanks to fish habitat modeling, the acquisition of remote sensing data, river hydromorphology and hydraulic geometry characterization, population genetics, contaminants and sediments source tracking, researchers are able to test strategies to assess the quality of water bodies at a regional scale, mitigate infrastructure impacts (environmental flows), and take action to improve restoration efficiency and sustainability (erodible corridor). The scientific community also develops a participative approach and assesses water policies, actor games and social perception of nature and ecosystem quality in order to understand decision drivers, human standpoint evolution in space and time, as well as effects of education and cultural background on perception. Thanks to their contribution to scientific committees of different institutions (French Agency of Biodiversity, Water Agencies, Nature Conservation Agencies), mediation, and expertise actions, the scientists contribute to the implementation of the WFD in France. They are also involved in co-construction partnerships with stakeholders to produce easily transferable knowledge focused on public expectations and dedicated to more effective river protection.


How is exchange and cooperation between scientists, administration and policy organized in France with regard to river basin management?

Scientists are involved in scientific committees of different national and basin water institutions, and within different working groups or pilot committees (for instance on the Rhône River sediment management masterplan) in charge of implementing river basin management. Scientists are also often invited to public debates to broadcast research results and promote innovative management strategies. On the Rhône River basin, two research platforms (ZABR and OHM VR), coordinated through a NGO (GRAIE), initiate interdisciplinary and integrated science for rivers. Stakeholders participate in the research process (co-design programs, discuss results and perspectives, express specific needs…) and in an advisory board. An international conference (I.S.Rivers) dedicated to research and practices on natural and human-impacted large rivers is organized every 3 years, stimulating exchange and cooperation between scientists and stakeholders. Recently, the University of Lyon was granted by the National Research Agency to establish a graduate school of research in integrated watershed sciences (EUR H2O’Lyon) based on a strong partnership with stakeholders to reinforce links between research and education in river basin management implementation.