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Uncertainties in River Restoration

Introduction to Research

Uncertainties in river restoration was initially the topic of my PhD, which was jointly funded by the University of Southampton's School of Geography, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, an Overseas Research Studentship award, and a Horton Research Grant from the American Geophysical Union.

Beginning in the Fall of 2003, there were three primary tasks I undertook to explore the scope of uncertainty in river restoration and provide a basis for a more focused research plan:
  • Conducted literature reviews into these segments of literature: river restoration, ecological restoration, integrated river basin management, environmental management, environmental policy, scientific uncertainty and environmental modelling.
  • Carried out key informant interviews with a dozen experts in river restoration from scientific, practitioner and policy perspectives.
  • Launched an International River Restoration Survey to find out from the restoration communities what the biggest challenges and uncertainties in river restoration were perceived to be.

The PhD research evolved to focus instead on the more specific uncertainties encountered in morphological sediment budgeting, but the findings of this intial resaearch may be useful to others studying river restoration. The broad literature review above became an introductory chapter (Wheaton et al. 2008) in a book edited by Steve Darby and David Sear on River Restoration: Managing the Uncertainty in Restoring Physical Habitat into uncertianty was conducted with the following primary conclusions:
  • The largest uncertainties are sociopolitical and funding uncertainties; something which targeted scientific research can not reduce.
  • There are at least five potential attitudes towards uncertainty: ignore it, eliminate it, reduce it, cope with it or embrace it. The restoration community has largely chosen to ignore it.
  • The restoration community has not established the insignificance of uncertainty (to justify ignoring it) or the significance of uncertainty (justifying an effort to eliminate or reduce it). As such, an embracing uncertainty framework is advocated in order to encourage an adaptive and precautionary perspective on river restoration.

Background

Will this work? A lot of money is spent on instream restoration efforts in the hope that it will. ©2004 Wheaton (See Photo
Copyright Disclaimer before downloading).
  Throughout the world river restoration is underway in response to the exploitation and subsequent deterioration of the riverine environment (Sear 1994, Kondolf 1995b, Brookes & Shields 1996). The science and practice of river restoration, both still very much in their adolescence (Palmer et al. 1997), have been graced with funding and support from a diverse range of interest groups, various governmental bodies, agencies and river managers alike (Wheaton et al. 2008).

The premise of this research was that if funding and resources were expected to be continually allocated to river restoration, it would have to be shown that river restoration is ‘working’ (see preface, Wissmar & Bisson, 2003). However, definitions of success are subjective and vulnerable to uncertainties in the river restoration process, societal values, the fluvial system and ecosystem response to restoration management activities. Paradoxically, the uncertainties influencing river restoration projects are rarely recognized or quantified, much less reported to stakeholders or the public (Walters 1997).
From the above, a broad literature review into uncertainty was conducted (Wheaton et al. 2008) with the following primary conclusions:
  • The largest uncertainties are sociopolitical and funding uncertainties; something which targeted scientific research can not reduce.
  • There are at least five potential attitudes towards uncertainty: ignore it, eliminate it, reduce it, cope with it or embrace it. The restoration community has largely chosen to ignore it.
  • The restoration community has not established the insignificance of uncertainty (to justify ignoring it) or the significance of uncertainty (justifying an effort to eliminate or reduce it). As such, an embracing uncertainty framework is advocated in order to encourage an adaptive and precautionary perspective on river restoration.

Contrasting Attitudes Towards Uncertainty

Three of the five contrasting philosophical attitudes towards uncertainty are diagrammed below. These are elaborated on in Wheaton (2004). The fourth image contrasts all five attitudes. You can click on each figure for a larger image.



Framework for reducing uncertainty in a decision making process such as river restoration. Figure 1.7 from Wheaton (2004): ©2004 (See Photo Copyright Disclaimer before downloading).

Framework for coping uncertainty in a decision making process such as river restoration. Figure 1.8 from Wheaton (2004): ©2004 (See Photo Copyright Disclaimer before downloading).

Framework for embracing uncertainty in a decision making process such as river restoration. Based on the Van Asslet typology of uncertainty. Figure 1.9 from Wheaton (2004): ©2004 (See Photo Copyright Disclaimer before downloading).




Five Philosophical Attitudes Towards Uncertainty compared in a Venn diagram. Notice that contemporary attitudes towards uncertainty shares no overlap with the restoration community's current attitude of ignoring uncertainty. Figure 1.6 from Wheaton (2004): ©2004 Wheaton (See Photo Copyright Disclaimer before downloading).

It is difficult to adopt or advocate an appropriate attitude towards uncertainty without first considering what uncertainty is. A typology for uncertainty is outlined in Wheaton (2004) that transparently defines uncertainty based on the Van Asselt (2001) typology shown in the figure below:



Relevant References

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