Dammed to Hell: Crowd-sourcing a Rescue for Rivers

The Italian project AMBER mobilizes people across the European Union in order to save their river systems, and their futures

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River dam
River damCredit: Katarzyna Suska, SSIFI
Giovanni Caprara, Corriere della Sera, Italy
Giovanni Caprara, Corriere della Sera, Italy

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“River basins are a precious resource," says Andrea Castelletti of the Department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan: but badly managed human intervention has damaged not only the waterways but also the ecosystems.

That explains the motivation behind the Amber project (Adaptive Management of Barriers in European Rivers), part of the European Commission Horizon 2020 program. Castelletti leads the Italian group in the project, alongside partners from 10 other European countries.

Rivers offer precious benefits to the land. But a lack of adequate regulations or controls has led to an increase in small barriers, such as dams or dikes, that can have negative consequences.

River basin research

Around 90 percent of them are less than five meters long, but they harm fish stocks by blocking migration. Salmon and eels, for instance, have practically disappeared from some European waterways because of the obstacles.

In general, barriers are built to raise river levels, produce hydroelectric energy or form flood detention basins. However, says Castelletti, “The trouble is that apparently positive interventions, if not adequately assessed, can end up causing irreparable damage.”

Death of a sturgeon

Isola Serafini is one place that would have benefited from a more accurate analysis of the potential effects of a barrier. One of the biggest islands on the Po river, in the Italian province of Piacenza, it is home to a hydroelectric station that gets its power from a difference in water levels created by a double levee.

But the levee is also considered to be the main cause of the sturgeon’s decline.

The range of unwanted effects is far broader than one might imagine. They include coastline retreat, the inland movement of saltwater intrusion (when saltwater moves into freshwater aquifers), and reduced availability of water for agriculture.

The list of environmental problems triggered by the presence of big and small dams was enough to justify the launch of the Amber project two years ago. With a funding of 6 million euros (USD 7.2m), it is now halfway complete, and the analysis carried out so far has demonstrated its importance. The project has involved 20 European Union institutions, from universities to research centers. “The main goal,” says Castelletti, “is to make an inventory of small barriers and create a database with which to plan future actions.”

Crowdsourcing a map of dams

Indeed, nobody knows exactly how many of these barriers exist. Some estimates say around one million, but this is a general assessment.

Therefore, the first goal is to create a European atlas of the minor artificial structures on rivers that cause problems comparable to those of big dams, due to effects that accumulate over time.

“In addition to the atlas,” says Castelletti, “we are developing various other tools, including analysis methods of river classification, efficient data collection procedures and assessments of environmental impact on the land.” The project is carrying out on-site campaigns in relevant areas in order to evaluate methods, while using satellite images and collaborating with citizen science initiatives to directly involve citizens and spread awareness on the problem.

Anyone with a cell phone can contribute to the researchers’ work by taking photos and sending them to the Amber project group via a mobile app available on their website called “Barrier Tracking.” A large database is being created at the EU Joint Research Center in Ispra, Italy, to store all the information gathered by the various countries, allowing anyone to conduct case studies.

It is precisely with this new source of information that the European project will tackle its third goal: developing strategies to solve or mitigate current issues and preparing future management choices. “We already have examples of countries such as France where concrete action is being taken,” Castelletti notes. “Italy and Germany, on the other hand, are on the blacklist. Our aim is to provide politicians with tools to help them make decisions and undertake necessary actions.”

One of these is the removal of old dams that have become unproductive and economically inefficient, as is happening in the United States. It is important to spread awareness in communities, even small ones, and to conduct more thorough examinations of building permits granted to hydroelectric plants. Often awarded on the basis of insufficient analysis, they can lead to significant environmental costs that outweigh the immediate advantages.

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