Sandy lowland river: Water Type of the Year 2018

Only three per cent of streams have 'good' status

Der Fluss NieplitzClick to enlarge
Nieplitz - sandiger Tieflandbach
Source: Jörg Schönfelder

The German Environment Agency (UBA) has named the sandy lowland river the Water Type of the Year 2018 on the occasion of World Water Day (22 March). The course of these streams is often straightened, changed and deepened to drain their floodplains and make them usable for agriculture. As a result, only 30 per cent of sandy lowland rivers can still be classified as “natural”, and only three per cent have 'good' ecological status. Sandy lowland rivers are valuable habitats for a large number of species. Typical residents include the gudgeon, a small fish once in high demand as food, and the beaver. The thick shelled river mussel nestles between watercress and the roots of alder trees. Once widespread, this mussel is now on the Red List of Threatened Species. The Water Type of the Year 2018 is therefore an example of a body of water which has still not achieved 'good' ecological status across the board and requires improved protection. These are the conclusions of two new studies by the German Environment Agency on the condition of water bodies in Germany: “Waters in Germany: Status and Assessment” and "Wasserwirtschaft in Deutschland" (in German).

Because sandy lowland rivers are located in regions where intensive agriculture occurs, they are now among the most non-natural water types in Germany. Stream sections which are ecologically intact are rare. Where once a stream meandered is now a space for farmers to plough their field, the floodplain having vanished and the stream barely visible. The stream itself serves as a drainage channel and has been recessed and straightened. Nature lovers will discover that the gudgeon, beaver, thick shelled river mussel et al. are nowhere to be found. Weirs regulate the water table, separating biotic communities and damming water. When fields are farmed too close to riparian zones and the stream is left unprotected by trees and bushes, fine sand in rain runoff can easily drift over the streambed and cover gravel banks. As a result, habitats and fish spawning grounds disappear. Nutrient and pesticide inputs to the water can also occur. Water body margins and embankments are regularly mowed and water plants and deadwood removed. Habitats which were once quite diverse now largely lack variety.

Planting trees and bushes is a way to improve the situation. Quite often it is enough to let nature run simply its course. Branches and tree trunks can be left in the water. In particular, the streams need sufficient space on both sides to allow natural swell during flooding. These water development areas can also provide protection against pollutants from fields and roads, but they are in competition with intensive agriculture. The UBA therefore recommends the official designation of water development areas which does not impair other types of use. Public authorities should be granted the right of pre-emption in order to create permanent spaces for flood protection, recreation, stream development and water pollution control.

The theme for World Water Day 2018 is 'Nature for Water'. It has been an annual event ever since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. World Water Day 2018 is making a call to tap the potential for more natural use of water ecosystems than before. Forests, meadows and wetlands are nature's reservoirs and water filters. Intact floodplains are able to contain floodwaters. They are among the earth's ecosystems with the highest rate of biodiversity. These "green" infrastructures can replace or complement technical structures and mitigate environmental impact.

Umweltbundesamt Hauptsitz

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau

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