RIVERS AND LAKES
Water shapes our landscapes in the form of rivers, lakes and numerous types of wetlands, each providing habitats for many unique plant and animal species. The running water in rivers and the standing water in lakes, for example, both host different kinds of typical species that are adapted to these conditions.
Freshwater ecosystems – as distinct from the saltwater-influenced marine and coastal ecosystems – play a major role in our everyday lives: they are a source of drinking water, food and transportation; they moderate floods and droughts; they support agriculture and purify water; and they provide important recreational and educational environments.
However, our rivers and lakes are under pressure from numerous threats, including pollution and the construction of reservoirs and dams. Dams in particular impede fish movements and alter the habitat of many river species.
Many freshwater habitats and their species are protected under the EU Nature Directives, a legal framework that is translated into national law by all 27 Member states of the European Union
Freshwater habitats across Europe vary considerably according to climate and geology. Permanent water bodies that exist year-round are mainly concentrated in the northern and Atlantic parts of Europe, while temporary ones that are only present at certain parts of the year are more typical for the Mediterranean climatic zone. Altogether 20 different types of freshwater habitats are protected in the EU.
Rivers host a great diversity of habitat types, 10 of which are protected in the EU. Protected river habitats range from cold-water boreal (northern) rivers and high-mountain alpine rivers, to rivers with extensive gravel beds and water courses with submerged or floating vegetation.
Riparian forests are forests that grow alongside rivers. In Europe, such forests can consist of different tree and shrub species such as willow, alder, elm, ash and tamarisk depending on the area, as well as oleander galleries and thickets. These forests provide valuable food, shelter and migration corridors for both aquatic and land species.
LAKES, LAGOONS AND PONDS
Lakes, lagoons and ponds are standing water habitats which are home to, and used by, many different land and aquatic species. 10 types of lakes and ponds are protected by the EU Habitats Directive. These range from large, deep lakes to shallow lagoons and temporary ponds.
Lakes, lagoons and ponds usually host a local and unique biodiversity and are home to many different plant and animal species that are adapted to standing waters including pondweed, duckweed, stonewort, dragonflies, damselflies, catfish (for example, Silurus aristotelis) and the European pond turtle (Emys orbiculatis). They also provide breeding habitats for amphibians such as the Yellow-bellied toad (Bombina variegata) and the Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus). Lakes and ponds are also crucial habitats for birds, especially as stopover and resting sites during migration.
Europe’s inland waters boast not only hundreds of aquatic plant and fish species, but also a distinctive variety of invertebrates, amphibians, mammals and birds that depend on these waters during their life cycle. The nutrient and mineral contents of the water are important factors in determining which species live in or frequent these freshwater habitats.
Waterbirds including ducks, geese, swans, herons, flamingos and cranes depend on freshwater areas for feeding, breeding and resting. Many waterbirds in Europe are migratory, such as the Purple heron (Ardea purpurea) which breeds in central and southern Europe, but winters in tropical Africa.
The Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterurs ruber) also breeds in the EU. About 60 percent of its population is found in the coastal wetlands of the Mediterranean region, with important breeding colonies in the French Camargue and in Southern Spain. Greater flamingo move between wetlands in Southern Europe and North Africa, the latter being an important wintering ground and a ‘nursery’ for immature flamingos from Europe.
Europe’s rivers and lakes are also home to a variety of mammal species, such as the emblematic Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), the European beaver (Castor fiber) and the European mink (Mustela lutreola).
The western population of the European mink has declined seriously since the mid-19th century. The species has even become extinct in some parts of Central Europe due to changes in or loss of its river habitats, and also competition with the non-European American mink.
Another rare aquatic mammal, the Pyrenean desman (Galemys pyrenaicus), is only found in Southern Europe (France, Spain and Portugal). While the desman prefers fast flowing mountain streams, it is also occasionally found in slow moving water bodies such as canals, lakes and marshes. Unfortunately, the Desman has declined or even disappeared from some areas.
EUROPEAN FRESHWATER FISH
European rivers harbour over 70 fish species that are protected by the EU Habitats Directive. Some of them are endemic (only found in certain European rivers), such as the Zingel asper, or apron (Zingel asper) and the Romanian darter, or asprete (Romanichthys valsanicola) which is only found in the Arges Basin in Romania.
Some fish travel over great distances. Salmon, for instance, are well known for their long migrations upstream from the sea to freshwater rivers, where they reproduce. The endangered Danube salmon (Hucho hucho) and the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) are both protected by the Habitats Directive.
WHAT IS THE EU DOING TO PROTECT OUR RIVERS AND LAKES?
In addition to the EU Nature Directives, which protect endangered freshwater species and habitats, the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) – adopted in the year 2000 - focuses on improving the status of all surface water and groundwater across the EU.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 has recently set a target for restoring at least 25,000 kilometres of EU rivers to a free-flowing state by 2030.
The Water Information System for Europe (WISE Freshwater) provides information and data on the state of Europe’s rivers, lakes, ground waters, on the pressures affecting them and on the measures and actions taken to protect the aquatic environment.