Long term anthropogenic changes and ecosystem service consequences in the northern part of the complex Rhine-Meuse estuarine system

Paalvast, P. and van der Velde, G., 2014. Ocean and Coastal Management

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Around 0 AD, the Rhine-Meuse estuary in the southwest of the Netherlands was a typical coastal plain estuary. Drainage of peatland and land subsidence behind the dunes later caused the sea to penetrate into the land. Most of the peat was eroded, and by 1000 AD the so-called Delta area had turned into a landscape of large estuaries and intertidal zones. Rotterdam developed from a small fishing village on the banks of the tidal river “Nieuwe Maas” from the 14th century onwards into the largest seaport of Europe in 2013. The Rotterdam harbour area situated in the northern part of the Delta area includes the former Europoort harbour, and is nowadays known as Rijnmond. The hydrology of the area is controlled by the drainage regime of the sluices in the Haringvliet barrier that was constructed as part of the “Delta Works” project to protect the southwest of the Netherlands against storm surges. The sluices are opened at slack tide to discharge river water to the sea and are always closed at flood tide. As a baseline study for environmental and ecological reconstruction and development, we describe in detail the loss of intertidal soft sediment ecotopes due to land reclamation, harbour development and river training works (straightening of the navigational channel) in the tidal rivers, and the expansion of hard substrate ecotopes (quay walls, groynes, training walls, riprap, concrete, stones etc.) in the Rijnmond area in the 19th and 20th centuries. Within 135 years, more than 99% of the original 4775 ha of characteristic pristine soft sediment estuarine ecotopes have disappeared. In the same period, 338 ha of hard intertidal substrate zone was constructed. Such trends can also be observed in harbour areas elsewhere, and have ecological and environmental consequences for estuarine areas in particular. Restoration of soft substrate estuarine ecotopes can be achieved by opening the Haringvliet Sluices at both ebb and flood tide, which would restore large-scale estuarine dynamics to the northern part of the Rhine-Meuse estuarine system. This will have a highly favourable effect on many ecosystem services. The Dutch division of the Word Wild Life Fund has launched a new proposal for a safer and more attractive South-West Delta area. It comprises the reopening of the sea inlets such as the Haringvliet by removing the barriers, and building climateproof dikes in combination with natural wetlands. In case of storm surges, the hinterland could be protected with a new generation of barriers that do not hamper the free transport of sediment, tides and animals. Based on 30 ecosystem services or subservices, it was calculated that opening the Haringvliet inlet would lead to an increase in Total Economic Value (TEV) of at least 500 million Euro per year. The costs of removing old barriers and the construction of new ones was not included in the calculations.

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