On the last Sunday of September, we celebrate World Rivers Day. As such, this is an excellent opportunity to discuss this topic.

Przemysław Gruszecki, Director of the Water Environment Management Department at SWH Polish Waters, talks about restoration, the most recent plan to improve the condition of water in Poland.

What is river restoration?

In short, it is a process aimed at restoring a river to its natural state. However, as part of the restoration plan currently being prepared, we will refrain from the proposition of altering the nature of our rivers completely. Rather, the goal is to improve the functioning of the ecosystems that already exist. The document will identify the areas that require specific types of actions and establish the appropriate corrective methods.

Does the implementation of the programme indicate that a revolution in water management is about to take place?

Not at all. The restoration plan serves to complement the activities which are already being carried out by Polish Waters. Both the restoration plan and our other programmes, such as the flood risk management plan and the drought prevention plan, complement each other. Although separately each of them is focused on its own specific goals, together they form a substantive whole and our water management plans reflect that. The restoration plan will be employed as part of some of the greater environmental activity plans. The implementation guidelines for the coming years will be prepared based on the results achieved as part of this plan.

Where should we start, and what will be the most important factor? Which rivers should be subject to restoration?

As we develop the restoration plan, we also take into account the ecological status of the rivers, and more specifically, the ecological status of water bodies that these rivers form. The Vistula that we see in Ustroń and Toruń is actually the very same river, but its character in these two sections is vastly different. These differences include the structure of the river bottom, types of organisms living in the water. Other differences include the nature of the flow, and speed or fluctuations resulting from natural factors, such as the intensity of water level rising due to rainfall in a given region. That is why during planning we use the term ‘uniform body of water’ (UBW). The aim of the programme is to restore natural conditions where possible while maintaining the conditions necessary to use these water bodies in the same capacity as today. We are interested in restoring areas and rivers whose condition is worse than good, as indicated by an ecological status assessment. The reason for this is the physical changes which result in individual biological element indicators failing to meet the criteria for what are considered good conditions.

It is worth noting, however, that the rivers in Poland have not been altered as significantly as in Germany or the Netherlands. Therefore, the scale of the river restoration process in our country is completely different. In addition to this, we must clearly state that the name of the project, namely the ‘Restoration programme’, does not fully correspond to what this programme will actually include. This is due to the fact that the programme will cover both natural water bodies as well as those that we consider significantly transformed. In the latter case, we are not talking about ‘restoration’ per se, as this would necessitate that any current forms of utilising these waters bodies cease indefinitely, but rather about finding ways to improve their ecological quality, which in this case is referred to as ‘ecological potential’, without dismantling any of the existing infrastructures.

The Włocławek reservoir is an example of a river which has undergone significant alterations. For us water management planners, it is not an artificial reservoir, but rather a heavily-transformed part of the Vistula river, and since by definition it is meant to be, we will not change that in any way. In such cases, however, we aim to improve the functioning of these newly-established ecosystems wherever possible. We must remember that nature adapts to human activity. Countless waterfowl and plant species inhabit such heavily-modified rivers or artificial reservoirs, so nature is certainly doing very well in these places.

But if so, then how do we know that a river actually needs restoration?

It is a complicated process. To understand this issue well, one must delve deep into the details of water assessment and environmental goal-setting methods. Roughly speaking, we divide all rivers, as well as lakes and transitional and coastal waters into two categories, i.e. natural and heavily-modified, just as I mentioned earlier. We speak of ‘heavily-modified’ areas in cases where physical changes introduced by human activity are significant and irreversible (such transformation serves the industry and the economy, among others). Obviously, restoring these areas to their natural state would mean that any businesses making use of them would have to be shut down. Including a given water body in the ‘heavily-modified’ category is akin to affirming any alterations already made to it and accepting that they were indeed necessary.

The remaining watercourses which have not undergone any irreversible changes, as well as those that have been transformed but the reasons for doing so no longer exist, are considered ‘natural’ in our nomenclature. In the case of such watercourses, the goal is to bring them back to the ‘good’ status, which will be determined based on a comprehensive assessment of functioning quality of each particular aquatic ecosystem. Therefore, it is not only about measuring water quality, but also assessing the conditions for biological life. For this purpose, a list of more than 100 parameters divided into indicator groups was created. In addition to the qualitative parameters, such as the chemical content, temperature or colour, we also use five biological indicators to test water life. Additionally, we utilise hydrology and morphology indicators, concerning factors like the riverbed and the riverside zone status and flow velocity, stability and variability. The starting point for the analysis is to imagine how all these factors would look like under natural conditions, either completely undisturbed by human activity or altered only to a small degree.

What are the main restoration activities focused on?

The purpose of the restoration programme is to ensure that watercourses maintain their flow capacity. This is primarily to ensure that fish are able to access them. So, in our current activities we work to ensure that water bodies provide appropriate conditions for aquatic animals. Thanks to this, migratory fish such as trout can get to their preferred spawn areas. We also consider other species of course, such as riverbed organisms and invertebrates. In other words, rivers are meant to provide various animal species with a suitable place to live and allow them to move freely, in accordance with their life cycles.

Fish often encounter various obstacles along their path, usually in the form of weirs and dams. If the indicators concerning the biological elements of the ecosystem such as fish, are bad, i.e. fish abundance, species composition and age structure (parameterized quantitively) appear abnormal, then we look for the reasons behind this. The first reason that we usually notice is man-made structures spanning across rivers. Our project aims to find areas where the river flow capacity has been compromised and propose actions to restore it. One such solution is building or repairing fish passes that allow fish to travel up or down the rivers. Dismantling old and decommissioned water damming structures is another possibility. Nonetheless, any such actions must be taken in a logical order.

Will restoration activities affect other ways of water usage in any significant manner?

The main difficulty of this situation is the need to avoid compromising both the social and economic, as well as the environmental goals. River restoration cannot result in our inability as a nation to sail using our waterways, construct hydroelectric power plants, create bathing areas, etc. The essence of these activities is merely to ensure that any such investment projects are as environmentally-friendly as possible. There are already appropriate procedures and legal restrictions in place that regulate these issues. Rivers restoration is not something that should happen regardless of the cost. The classic environmental management model encompasses business, economic and social analyses, as well as migration- and money flow-related issues. Just one wrong initiative can lead to a complete economic collapse of a given region. Thus, it is yet another factor that we must pay attention to. It is always necessary to maintain a balance between the broadly-understood needs of the citizens and the natural environment itself. That is to ensure sustainable development.

The Polish Waters Holding is already involved in the ecological corridor reconstruction works. One of such projects is currently being implemented in Biała Tarnowska.

Is this the direction in which river restoration is proceeding?

It is a separate project, which is not related to the restoration plan currently being prepared. Nonetheless, it aims to improve the conditions vital to the ecosystem as well, including conditions that facilitate the migration of migratory fish species. The Polish Waters Holding chooses solutions that aim to mimic the natural conditions of a river whenever possible. This investment project is an excellent example of productive cooperation between national administration, NGOs and environmental organisations. It is yet another successful project implemented by Polish Waters, this time with the participation of the WWF. Experts representing various scientific fields and communities will be involved in forming the river restoration plan as well.

What institutions does the Polish Waters Holding work with regarding water quality?

The Polish Waters Holding does not monitor the natural environment directly. We work using data from the Inspectorate of Environmental Protection. The entity responsible for monitoring water and its quality is the Chief Inspectorate of Environmental Protection (CIEP). As a company, SWH Polish Waters contributes to this by assessing the possibilities of achieving environmental goals. We receive data and water status assessments from the CIEP and we collect data on the status of the protected areas from the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate, General Directorate for Environmental Protection and individual water intake owners. We then proceed to analyse this data on individual river sections to see whether or not we maintain a good environmental status and protect anything that needs protecting in these areas, as well as to determine how far away we are from meeting this goal in case we do not. If the assessed uniform body of water does not meet the established environmental goals and we know how far away it is from that, we then proceed to look for tools that will allow us to improve the situation. This is the reason behind the existence of water management plans, and more specifically, the existence of the action programme that is part of these plans.

– SWH Polish Waters is often accused of paving rivers…

This is an entirely separate issue, one which is unrelated to river restoration. This is mainly about maintenance works. Back in the day, long before the establishment of the SWH Polish Waters, paving rivers was indeed a possible solution. In some cases, riverbanks were altered to such an extent that rivers became more like canals. Today, however, such solutions are out of the question. We have a radically different approach to river maintenance. We carry out any works required in such a way as not to damage the natural environment. It is perfectly possible to ensure watercourse flow efficiency in a more ecological manner. Although such solutions often require more expenditure, they are much less damaging to the local environment.

The world is changing rapidly and today’s approach to environmental issues is vastly different than what it used to be in the past. It must be noted that paving rivers damages much more than just the natural environment. It also increases the water flow speed, which in turn creates very unfavourable conditions in the event of flooding or drought. Both of these phenomena already occur in Poland regularly and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the SWH Polish Waters conducts its operations based on the most up-to-date knowledge in regard to water management. In addition, our environmental goals play an equally important role here as well.

And what about the state of the Vistula river following the ecological disaster caused by the catastrophic failure of the ‘Czajka’ sewage treatment plant? Is the Vistula river clean or dirty?

In this case, the way of thinking about water quality still mostly comes down to the reflection on whether the water is clean enough to take a bath or if it is potable, etc. These are health-related aspects and these kinds of questions should be submitted to the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate. If we would like to discuss water quality according to today’s standards, then we need to consider the entire aquatic ecosystem. Therefore, the question of whether the river is dirty or clean is rather difficult to answer. We tend to speak about its condition in terms of “good” or “bad”, as these concepts generally reflect the essence of things. In the end, it is just one of the parameters tested (out of a few hundred) that determines whether the river is in good or bad condition. It is enough that one of them fails to meet the quality standards, even if all others are great, for the matter to essentially be settled.

Had this sewage discharge lasted any longer, then whatever improvements that the Vistula has undergone in recent years would have been be nullified. That what the most unfortunate factor. During the course of the breakdown, 260,000m3 of sewage flowed directly into the Vistula River every day, including 13 tonnes of particularly harmful substances, like biogens, nitrogen, phosphorus and heavy metals. As a result, serious and irreparable damage to the aquatic environment may have occurred if this discharge was had not been stopped. We would lose everything that we have worked for over the years, essentially all our progress towards improving the quality of water in the Vistula and bringing the local environment to a good state. Although most of us have already forgotten the shameful nickname that the Vistula used to have – ‘the queen of Polish sewage’, as of today, not being worried about the threat of this nickname’s imminent return is simply inconceivable. 1.8 million people live along the Vistula river between Warsaw and Gdańsk and all of them want to feel safe and enjoy the river’s natural values.

Can the best interests of the people and the environment be somehow reconciled?

Balancing these two goals is certainly a worthy endeavour. If we want to build anything on the river, then society’s best interest is one of the most important aspects. Water management is about seeking balance in that regard and deciding which factor is the most vital one. If it is, for example, economy and shipping, which will then contribute to the development of the region, then such an investment project can be implemented. However, it is necessary to know what end-goal a given action is meant to achieve and try to do as little damage to the environment as possible. Restoration is nothing more than correcting mistakes made in the past. It is about eliminating unnecessary watercourse alterations and reducing the environmental impact of those which are needed wherever possible. Perhaps someday in the future, such restoration programmes will not be needed at all. To ensure that, we as a society must remember that choosing the simplest solutions without looking at the environmental consequences is a terrible choice. It is always better to choose methods and solutions that seem more expensive but cause less damage to the environment in the end. The Polish Waters Holding is headed precisely in that direction.

Interview by: Anna Jastrzębska
from the Social Communication Department of
SWH Polish Waters

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *