Diversity in Upland Rivers for Ecosystem Service Sustainability - DURESS

Lead Research Organisation: NERC CEH (Up to 30.11.2019)
Department Name: Emmett


With the UK's water valued at £200 billion p.a., Britain's 389,000 km of river ecosystems are arguably our most important. In addition to providing water, they supply other major ecosystem services such as the regulation of flooding and water quality; support to adjacent ecosystems by supplying energy and nutrients; and large cultural value for charismatic organisms, recreation, and education. However, the ways in which organisms and ecosystem functions maintain these services in rivers are extremely poorly understood. This is despite large ongoing effects on river organisms from changing catchment land use, and increasingly also from climate change. Cost implications are large and result, for example, from impacts on recreational fisheries, water treatment costs, and high value river biodiversity. By contrast, opportunities to use management positively to increase the ecosystem service value of rivers by enhancing beneficial in-river organisms have barely been considered.

In this project, we will focus on four examples of river ecosystem services chosen to be explicitly biodiversity-mediated: the regulation of water quality; the regulation of decomposition; fisheries and recreational fishing; and river birds as culturally valued biodiversity. Each is at risk from climate/land use change, illustrating their sensitivity to disturbance thresholds over different time scales. These services vary in attributable market values, and all require an integrated physical, biogeochemical, ecological and socio-economic science perspective that none of the project partners could deliver alone.

Using river microbes, invertebrates, fish and river birds at levels of organisation from genes to food webs, we will test the overarching hypothesis that: "Biodiversity is central to the sustainable delivery of upland river ecosystem services under changing land-use and climate". Specifically, we will ask: 1. What is the range of services delivered by upland rivers, and which are biologically mediated? 2. What are the links between biodiversity (from genes to food webs) and service delivery? 3. How does river biodiversity affect the rate or resilience of ecosystem service delivery through time? 4. How do changes in catchment land use/ management and climate affect river biota? 5. How should river biodiversity be managed to sustain ecosystem services?

At spatial scales ranging from small experimental catchments to the whole region, and at temporal scales from sub-annual to over three decades, the work will be carried out in upland Wales as a well-defined geographical area of the UK that is particularly rich in the spatially extensive and long-term data required for the project.

Planned Impact

The research findings of the project will have a direct impact on academic researchers, the water industry, conservationists, land managers, policy makers and regulators, and the general public. Impact will be maximised by the participation in the project of representatives of each of these beneficiaries.

Academic beneficiaries: Detailed information on novel methods and approaches to quantify the key aspects of biodiversity that underpin delivery of ecosystem services, and to identify key thresholds and/or resilience in service delivery will be important for community ecologists, system ecologists, hydrologists, and social-economic scientists. Key harmonised and updated environmental databases on rivers as well as information for climate change adaptation and land use management will bring further benefit, in particular to aid development of valuation methods for ecosystems.

The water industry: In deepening our understanding of the relationship between landuse/management and climate changes and river ecosystem processes, this project will help the water industry implement a whole catchment approach to water quality management. In particular it will help to identify options to reduce and manage impacts on water quality, notably in areas that add large costs to water treatment such as elevated nitrate and Dissolved Organic Carbon content, color, and waterborne pathogens that are not controlled using standard water disinfection such as Cryptosporidium.

Land managers: Management of land to minimize impacts on rivers and their ecosystems is a central aim of River Basin Management Plans to deliver compliance with the Water Framework Directive. Agri-environment schemes are a key delivery mechanism where managers need better information on the resilience of river ecosystems and the sensitivity of land use to biodiversity and ecosystem health. This is particularly in the context of meeting the challenge of climate change and the possible ways that land use changes may occur to mitigate climate change and to adapt to climate change.

Conservation managers: The project will provide better information on how protecting and enhancing biodiversity may increase the resilience to deliver ecosystem services, notably in the face of land and climate changes. This will enable conservation efforts that currently revolve around flora and fauna to have a stronger justification in terms of delivering human benefits. The ability to use valuation methods to assess and decide on management options will add greatly to the rigour of these processes and help to justify implementation.

Policy makers and regulators: The project will help this group to develop measures which deliver on the objective of achieving good ecological status of rivers. Valuation methods will help to decide on how management schemes should be designed to optimize delivery of ecosystem services, and to design ways to achieve resilience to the challenges of environmental change.

General public: Most people do not have a clear idea of the way that conservation measures are designed and implemented. By linking biodiversity to ecosystem services and their values, the public will have a better understanding of what conservation policies are trying to achieve. As well as being crucial to ecosystem function the project will show the considerable amenity value of river systems.


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Description Energy transfers from Land to streams - Evidence for upland broadleaf tree planting to support fish and adapt rivers to climate change.

Food webs are key components in the engine of ecosystem services.

The power of biofilm (the stuff that makes river rocks slippy!) in supporting production and regulating water quality.

Landscape context affects community diversity in all groups of organisms from microbes to birds, and at all levels from genes to ecosystems.
Water quality is highly dynamic during storms which is potentially critical to river biodiversity.

The UK's river systems are highly dynamic as they recover from some stressors (eg acidification as at Llyn Brianne) but are degraded by others (e.g. sediments).
Catchment land use is important for river resilience.
Exploitation Route The DURESS Scenarios are helping to envisage future land-use change and its consequences for ecosystem services (e.g. salmon density and moderating cryptosporidium infection risk).

People place large value on water quality. We need the right tools and measures to quantify biodiversity and its role in ecosystem services.
Sectors Environment

URL http://nerc-duress.org/
Description GCRF internal grant eDNA Namibia
Amount £32,000 (GBP)
Funding ID GCRF internal grant 
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Department Global Challenges Research Fund
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2020 
End 11/2020
Description Water Security Alliance
Amount £250,000 (GBP)
Organisation GW4 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 12/2020
Description Collaboration with the University of Namibia on eDNA in freshwaters 
Organisation University of Namibia
Country Namibia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We analysed eDNA samples of freshwater bodies in the Cuvelai basin
Collaborator Contribution Collaborators sampled the freshwater bodies
Impact We have a paper drafted
Start Year 2018
Description Phoenix waters 
Organisation University of Namibia
Country Namibia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The Duress and Lofresh teams have collaborated with the University of Namibia to work on the use of eDNA to monitor freshwater ecosystem services in Namibia, and were funded by EU Erasmus funding to visit Namibia to initiate the collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution The University of Namibia hosted a workshop to discuss water security issues in Namibia and the potential to use eDNA data for monitoring purposes.
Impact The collaboration is multidisciplinary, including freshwater ecologists, molecular ecologists, social scientists. Outputs include a Welsh Government GCRF small grant to sample freshwater sin the Cuvelai Basin
Start Year 2018