Getting back to nature
Giving more freedom to the Lech River

Work is under way to erase the ravages of human interference with the Lech River in Tyrol, Austria, and return the river to its natural state.

Credit: Toni Vorauer
Changes to the natural environment had a negative impact on the fluvial system, such as the separation of the Lech River from its side waters, a drop in groundwater levels, and dry-running of floodplain areas.

The LIFE project marks a milestone in the effort to create ecologically sound water habitats and promote understanding for the preservation of this natural area.

The Lech Valley of Tyrol is dominated by the appearance of the Lech River. The wide-ranging floodplain forests and habitats cover over 40 square kilometres and boast an impressive ecological variety. The valley, however, is at risk of losing these precious habitats due to flooding and over-management of the river.

The Lech valley of Tyrol is part of the Natura 2000 network, and forms the geographical frame for the LIFE-Nature project at the Lech River. The Lech River Valley is home to a number of rare or endangered species. Grasshoppers such as the gravel bed grasshopper or Türk’s groundhopper, both of which can still be found at the Lech River, require habitats of raised alpine river gravel banks and are therefore endangered. Furthermore, Bilek’s azure damselfly, discovered only as recently as 1952, makes it home nowhere else but the Tyrolean Lech Valley.

The river takes a new direction.
The Lech River undoubtedly plays an essential role in the lives and habitats of the people living by it. For many years, protection from floods and creation of land were the main interests of the local population. Structural measures in the form of dams and spur dikes were constructed to tame the flow of water and keep the river in a smaller river channel to gain ground. However, the smaller river channel increased the damage during floods and these constructions increased the velocity resulting in riverbed sinking. “With the start of the LIFE project there were several probing questions and irritations,” says District Commissioner Dietmar Schennach. “Why is the riverine forest being destroyed, why are the pine forests being cut down, why are there so many digging actions in the Lech?”

The sinking of the riverbed has led to further negative impacts on the fluvial system, such as the separation of the Lech River from its side waters, a drop in groundwater levels, and dry-running of floodplain areas. In addition, dams, which were constructed to protect settlements from high water, are in danger of washout. Thus, not only are rare plant and animal species endangered and natural habitats lost, but local settlement areas are also at risk.

Credit: Toni Vorauer
The Lady Slipper orchid, named for its large yellow blooms resembling a slipper, is an endangered species in Austria. The delicate plant prefers the half-shade of the floodplain forests, and flowers from May to July.

Removing the ties that bind the river.
The aims of the LIFE project, called Wild River Landscape of the Tyrolean Lech, are to conserve and return the dynamic fluvial habitats to a more natural state. The LIFE project will remove these dams to give the river more room again, including areas near the Johannis Bridge and the River Vils at the Marinau Hamlet. Moreover, the bed load protection at the river feeders will be removed to ensure unobstructed bed load transport at the Hornbach and Schwarzwasserbach brooks.

Removing these man-made attempts to tame the river will create new riverbanks to support rare plants, such as the dwarf cattail, by recreating their former habitats. Endangered species such as lady’s slipper, azure damselfly, special orchids and fish will be preserved by resettlement and maintenance of habitats. Furthermore, the team plans to develop new pools for amphibians and dragonflies. Egon Bader, of the Tyrolean Nature Conservatory, is optimistic about the far-reaching effects of the programme: “The Natura 2000 site doesn’t just provide protection for the river ecostystem and its riverine forests, it makes revitalisation of high value habitats possible, and safeguards flora and fauna.”

A LIFE information point along the river in Weissenbach will serve as an information hub for excursions and events within the LIFE project and will provide a location for leisure time activities, recreation and the experience of nature. Moreover, observation platforms and adventure paths will encourage a positive drive for environmentally sustainable tourism. The team project marks a milestone in the effort to create ecologically sound water habitats and promote understanding for the preservation of this natural area — for the well-being of river habitats and for the well-being of the people who live in this region. Local resident Siegfried F. Kerle sums it up by saying, “The LIFE project gives the region along the Lech River the attention and respect for nature that this beautiful landscape really deserves.”

Launched in 1982, LIFE is the financial instrument for the Environment of the European Commission. LIFE co-finances initiatives in the European Union and in Central and Eastern European accession candidate countries. The project includes a total of 53 individual projects, which began in 2001 and will continue until 2006.
What makes the Lech project so special is that it is a joint project with organisations from different fields and interests. Partners include: Government of Tyrol; Department for Nature Conservation and Water Management; Austrian Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management; Forest Technical Service for Torrent and Avalanche Control; and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). A total of 7.82 million Euro are available in order to carry out the project, which is also to have positive economic impacts on the region. Half the cost of the project is funded by the European Union; the remaining costs are shared among the partners.

For more information visit:

Toni Vorauer
is a biologist and WWF staff member responsible
for species conservation, school projects, public relations
and environmental education within the Life project.