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Georgian experts at the Debed river, Georgia ©EUWI+

 

Ecological monitoring is critical to ecosystem health, fostering groups of species and boosting the resilience of natural river systems.  As a result, rivers and streams can stand up to small disturbances and provide ecological services that are also of economic importance, ranging from self-purification processes (clean water), biomass production (fish, grass, timber) to reduced flood risk in natural floodplains.

Ecological monitoring is one of the ground-breaking methodologies for water monitoring introduced by the European Union Water Framework Directive (WFD) that helps to investigate species and river systems at large.

 

Plus points of ecological monitoring

While chemical monitoring is mainly concerned with detecting nutrients (agriculture, urban wastewater) and industrial pollutants, ecological monitoring also investigates fish, benthic invertebrates (insects, snails, worms, etc. living in water), diatoms (algae), and macrophytes (water plants) – known as Biological Quality Elements (BQEs). The collected data, including hydrological information (flow variations) and morphological details (sediments, river bed structure), are compared to pristine reference sites following which each water body is assigned with an ecological status.

 

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Examples of Biological Quality Elements found in Georgian river ©EUWI+

 

Ecological monitoring networks effectively cover all areas of an entire river basin district, where they identify risks of degradation and assess the status of local water bodies (usually a few kilometres long). In the European Union, this monitoring is regulated by the Water Framework Directive (WFD). According to the WFD, all water bodies need to reach at least “good ecological status”, the second highest level in a 5-class system.

 

Collecting more comprehensive information on rivers and their ecosystems

This use of BQEs and ecological status results in a very useful upgrade of conventional water quality monitoring. Investigating chemical parameters provides information about specific substances from human activities present in the water. However, especially in large and running waters, this information only represents the point in time and specific location where the sample was taken.

 

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Fish found in the Debed river during a surface water monitoring, Armenia ©EUWI+

 

Examining the species compositions of different BQEs gives water managers more comprehensive information over a wider water area and a longer timespan featuring varying conditions, as these animals and plants constantly live in the river and react to any natural changes and untypical disturbances. Some BQEs are very sensitive, while others are more robust, thus their presence or absence is highly indicative of water quality. They also reflect changes in hydrology, morphology, and lateral and longitudinal connectivity with other water bodies.

 

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Leaves and organic components from the Debed river in Armenia ©EUWI+

 

More informed decisions balancing societal, economic and environmental needs in Eastern Partnership countries

Regularly updated knowledge about the ecological situation in all rivers and lakes is important to justify where and when to take action on deteriorating water quality and water use, meaning informed decisions that balance societal, economic and environmental needs. The results of ecological monitoring are therefore incorporated into River Basin Management Plans, updated every six years to inform on the status of all surface and groundwaters and on priority measures for water body improvement.

In 2019, various surface water surveys were carried out in the 6 partner countries with support from the European Union Water Initiative +. Experts analysed aquatic biological communities and general chemical and physical parameters. The survey results served as an important database to develop new assessment methods in line with the WFD.