The lower Ain river in France:
Laying the social groundwork
for river restoration
The river Ain is one of the tributaries of the Rhône, flowing out of the French Alps to meet the Rhône in a great inland delta. Its lower section, between the mountains and the river, has all the characteristics of a lowland river, with alluvial floodplain forests and a chain of former river channels which are more or less cut off from the main watercourse.
The problem is that hydro-electric power dams and gravel quarries upstream, in the mountain section of the river, are heavily disrupting its natural dynamics further downstream. There are for instance irregular water flows and lighter than normal sediment loads.. As there is too little water and coarse material to periodically wash through the former meanders they are slowly filling with sediment, losing their ability to host Annex II species like the aquatic plant
Luronium natans. This is not only bad for nature but also bad for local tourism and farmers who depend on the river’s constant water supply.
Working in partnership
In a bid to redress this problem, the regional conservation body in the Rhone-Alpe province joined forces with a ‘Syndicat’ or union of local municipalities to restore the river’s natural dynamics in accordance with an agreed management strategy for this part of the river. The Syndicat represents altogether 40 riverine municipalities of which 21 are in Natura 2000, and so is an ideal partner for gaining general public acceptance over such a large and complex multiuse area.
It lacked however the necessary technical expertise and so was interested in turn in the cooperation of the regional conservation body who not only had the technical know-how but also the experience in applying for European funds, such as LIFE-Nature. The local mayors and other local elected representatives were therefore delighted by the interest shown in their river valley, when they learnt that their project had been successful under LIFE.
First, the project carried out a host of studies to get a clear and detailed picture of the situation on the ground and to come up with feasible solutions. Besides a thorough analysis of the entire fluvial system of the lower Ain and its hydrodynamics, studies looked at recreational and visitor use of the river and its associated ecosystems, at the habitats and species of Natura 2000 interest, the situation of the floodplain forests and the requirements for a future monitoring system.
In particular the habitat and species inventories turned up much useful information. No less than 15 Annex I habitats and 13 Annex II species were identified, and the results of the inventories led to proposals to expand the borders of the Natura 2000 site to match the discoveries.
The information from the studies is now being used to prepare a management plan for the lower Ain river Natura 2000 site. This plan follows the national French model for Natura 2000 management plans (the so-called ‘Document d’Objectif’).
Action is also being carried out to dredge the old river meanders to encourage a free flow of water through them. The water-filled pits of a gravel quarry will also be connected to the Ain river to create more ‘quiet water habitats’. However, the root cause of the side channels’ terrestrialisation must not be ignored.
The LIFE studies have shown that the lack of sediments and gravel carried downriver by the Ain, a result of the dams upstream, is indeed the principal cause. About 17,000 m³ of sediment additional to the current load would be needed to get an optimal ecological effect. Technical solutions are now being discussed: dumping surplus and reject material from the gravel quarries upstream into the river, or injecting the silt dredged from the lônes into the Ain, have been mooted as possibilities.
The information gathered through the project is also being fed into a debate with the local stakeholders and municipalities, on how to allow the river to reclaim the zone in which it once used to flood, erode and deposit sediments. One of the most important targets is to allow the river to return to its floodplain as much as possible. 85% of the floodplain is publicly-owned land, with the municipalities as predominant owners.
The project is negotiating ten-year agreements with the 21 municipalities concerned, in which they accept that the river can periodically flood their land and that erosion processes will be left unhindered. As for the private land in the floodplain, the LIFE project intends to purchase the sections where erosion by the river should be allowed to happen.
Agreements on the alluvial forests along the river are also part of the parcel. The Office National des Forêts ONF, the French state forestry service, is preparing a coherent and comprehensive management strategy for these forests, which ideally should be left to natural fluvial processes. To this end, a network of biological reserves in the alluvial forests is envisaged, while 50 ha of degraded forest will be restored to a better conservation status.
Raising general awareness
No matter how good the holistic concept may be or how innovative the technical proposals, if the local inhabitants living along the river are not in favour it will be extremely difficult to carry them out. This is perhaps the most significant good practice aspect of the LIFE project: its outreach work towards the community. Besides the negotiations and consultations with community bodies and stakeholder groups described above, it is also directly appealing to individual citizens.
The project decided to kick off with a high profile media event to draw attention to the fact that the newly formed partnership would generate practical and tangible solutions. It decided to clear 24 kms of river banks of rubbish. Every commune was enrolled in advertising this event and recruiting volunteers. Invitations were also sent to 27,000 households in the area. The turn out was substantial with over 600 people coming to help clear up over 12 tons of rubbish.
This action was very positively received in the district – it was seen as a tangible effort to do something about the environment and because it was extensively covered in the local newspapers, it was not long before everyone became familiar with the project for ‘their river’. This will be followed up with a ‘Fête de la Rivière’ (River Festival) in June 2006.
Developing a balanced recreational use plan
A very important part of the future river management concerns recreational use. The LIFE project prepared a concept for recreational and visitor use management, which will now be implemented. On the one hand it foresees restricting access to particularly sensitive zones, to which end some 80 barriers will be erected. On the other hand it wants to advertise the nature values of the river and its habitats where appropriate by providing nature trails and information panels.
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