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European freshwater systems include several million kilometres of flowing waters and more than one million lakes. Rivers with associated flood plains represent a unique and interconnected ecosystem covering around 7% of the continent . Together with their associated riparian and alluvial habitats, rivers and lakes are elemental to a large part of Europe’s biological diversity. Each body of water has its own characteristics and faces its own specific environmental problems. Recent EEA assessments show that less than 50% of water bodies are estimated to be in good ecological status . The alarming situation of the aquatic ecosystems is also reflected in the dramatic decline of migratory freshwater species (93 % compared to 1970 ), largely due to dams and other infrastructures limiting river connectivity. Almost 75% of Europe’s floodplain area shows a severe reduction of its extent, whereas 14% is substantially degraded, limiting a potential extent of alluvial and riparian habitats .
Distribution of 32 river, lake, alluvial and riparian habitats in the EU
To halt the ongoing deterioration and attenuate the historic human interventions on river systems, the EU Biodiversity Strategy aims to restore at least 25 000 km of free-flowing rivers by 2030. Together with the objectives of the EU Water Framework Directive for achieving a good ecological and chemical status for all waterbodies, and the restoration targets of the proposed Nature Restoration Law, European river and lake habitats and their associated biodiversity have a good chance of regeneration.
The Habitats Directive’s Annex I protects 32 river and lake habitat types as well as several alluvial and riparian habitat types. Together, they cover an area of around 96 500 km2 in the EU (except Romania).
The latest assessment of the State of Nature  showed that a high proportion of these Annex I habitats is in unfavourable status (76 %) and 38 % are further deteriorating.
The Water Framework Directive (WFD) as the main EU legislation governing the management of its freshwater resources has already led to some significant improvements in water ecosystems and the wildlife dependent on them. However, the objective of the WFD of achieving good status for all Europe’s waters by 2015 has been missed dramatically.
At least 21,600km2 of Annex I river, lake and alluvial habitats need to be restored and at least 900km2 of additional areas need to be ‘recreated’ from other land use
According to the results of the EEA restoration assessment based on data reported by Member States, the area of Annex I river, lake, alluvial and riparian habitats that require restoration amounts to at least 21,600km2, representing 23% of the total area reported for this group of habitats. However, as the condition of another over 22,000km2 (23% of the total area) is unknown, the area requiring restoration is most certainly considerably larger. In addition, the areas where the Annex I habitats will need to be recreated from other land uses represents at least 900km2 (but most likely even more areas will be needed to reach the good state for these habitats).
Habitat condition reported for river, lake, alluvial and riparian habitats
Source: Habitat condition reported by Member States under Article 17 reporting (period 2013-2018)
Note: the restoration surface areas are indicative since they were estimated on the basis of minimum areas reported by Member States and, for most habitats, their condition is largely unknown
Ranunculus fluitans. Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)
CASE STUDY: Management measures to improve the hydrological regime in restored freshwater habitats in Germany (habitat 3260)
The watercourse habitat from plain to montane levels with Ranunculion fluitantis and Callitricho-Batrachion vegetation in Germany was widely assessed as having a poor or bad conservation status (except in the Alpine region). Measures to improve the status of the watercourses and their species included improving and restoring the water quality and the hydrological regime and establishing protected areas. The measures taken to improve the status of the habitat had wider positive effects and enabled some of the populations of four associated fish species and Eurasian otter to increase across Germany. In addition to reducing habitat-related pressures on the species, measures were taken to regulate fishing practices. The management recommendations were drawn up by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation for specific endangered species. Various LIFE projects contributed to this success, e.g. Bachtäler Arnsberger Wald/Rehabilitation of streams in the Arnsberger Wald (LIFE07 NAT/D/000214) and Rur und Kall/Fluvial habitats (LIFE10 NAT/DE/000008).
Source: Tucker, G., et al., 2019, ‘Study on identifying the drivers of successful implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives’, Report to the European Commission, DG Environment on Contract ENV.F.1/FRA/2014/0063, Institute for European Environmental Policy, Brussels.
Restoring the degraded Annex I habitat will in many cases include the actions and measures aiming at reducing the current pressures. Main pressures reported under the Article 17 of the Habitats Directive for these habitats are modification of hydrology and hydromorphology, pollution, habitat management and invasive alien species.
- Modification of hydrology and hydromorphology is the most prominent pressure on Annex I river and lake systems. With constructions for irrigation, canalisation and groundwater abstraction, among other activities, agriculture is the main impacting sector in this context. Other constructions hindering the hydrological flow are most frequently related to hydropower and dam constructions.
- Another major pressure, pollution, is most commonly related to agricultural activities. Mixed source pollution, urban wastewater and run-off, and forestry activities are also relevant source of contaminants to European freshwater systems.
- Pressures related to habitat management refer to a variety of different activities. Most prominent impacts are reported from intensive grazing or undergrazing, the extraction of minerals or the removal of dead or dying trees.
Impacts to European rivers have also been thoroughly assessed based on the Member State reporting under the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), with results being published in the latest State of European Waters 2018.
Pressures reported for river, lake, alluvial and riparian habitats
Source: Pressure reported by Member States under Article 17 reporting (period 2013-2018). Conservation status of habitat types and species: datasets from Article 17, Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC reporting