The effectiveness of flood protection measures is assessed throughout Austria according to a standardised system, which, however, generally excludes ecological aspects. At the same time, tried-and-tested methods for assessing the ecological status of water bodies reach the limits of their informative value in the case of small-scale measures that also aim to improve the ecology of water bodies in addition to flood protection. A new concept developed by experts from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Regions and Tourism (BMLRT), the Federal Environment Agency and the technical bureau for water ecology “blattfisch” within the framework of the EU-funded project LIFE IRIS (Integrated River Solutions in Austria) aims to change this. The concept creates uniform standards for monitoring the success of small-scale measures and an evaluation system that includes the effects of morphological measures on river ecology, flood protection, terrestrial ecology and regulative as well as socio-cultural ecosystem services. It enables a locally accurate and comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of measures. The new concept for monitoring measures and the associated evaluation system are being implemented at six Austrian pilot sites in the IRIS project.
In the frame of the IRIS project, the project partners are testing the new planning instrument “River Development and Risk Management Concept” (GE-RM), which combines flood protection with river ecology, spatial planning and environmental protection on 600 river kilometres in Austria. Instead of various, sometimes contradictory individual projects in the fields of river ecology and flood protection, the experts work together on objectives and concepts of measures for the whole river basin. If necessary, they involve relevant specialist from technical fields such as nature conservation, spatial planning, tourism, fisheries or hydropower production in the planning process, thus creating high added value for all and a common view on river basins.
Flood protection and intact ecosystems as a field of tension
Today, Austrian river landscapes are regulated in many places to protect people from floods, to supply the population and the economy with sustainable energy from hydropower or to enable navigation. Protection against the adverse consequences of flood events is a top priority, as they can pose significant risks to people, the economy, and – in the case of chemical pollution – also to the environment. However, measures for technical flood protection and facilities for hydropower utilisation have left their clear traces in the water bodies and change their natural functions and habitats. In regulated riverine landscapes, floodplains, fish migration routes, natural river structures and dynamics are sometimes missing. This not only has negative consequences for river ecology, biodiversity and water balance, but also for tourism, local recreation and fishing, which benefit from near-natural and attractive river landscapes.
This is precisely where the IRIS project comes in. The large-scale planning tool River Development and Risk Management Concept facilitates long-term planning in which the various utilisation requirements are coordinated with each other. To this end, measures will be implemented in the coming years that will improve both the ecological condition of the rivers and flood protection.
The project management of IRIS lies with the BMLRT. The Hydraulic Engineering Administrations of Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tyrol and Burgenland as well as viadonau (Österreichische Wasserstraßen-Gesellschaft mbH) and the Federal Environment Agency Vienna are on board as project partners. IRIS is also financed by funds from the LIFE funding programme.