The Upper Mur River is considered as one of the most ecologically valuable rivers of Austria, especially because of the natural reproduction for the Danube salmon. The systematic regulation of the river Mur began at the end of the 19th century, distributaries were cut off and large areas were drained in order to intensify agricultural land use. The alluvial forests were reduced and the channeled river bed led to a reduction of the river dynamic and to a loss of habitats. Also the construction of hydro power stations affected the river-continuum and the sediment transport.
Financed by different programs of the EU, National and Regional funds, restoration measures have been started in 1997 in the area of the Upper Mur and the “Grenzmur”. Since then various projects facilitated a renaturation of more than 22 km both in the upper course and the Slovenian border section of the river - lots of measures for passive flood protection and dynamic development have been set. To preserve these ecologically important water sections and to comply with Austria’s objectives of the energy policy, a Management Plan for the River Mur was developed in 2014. It aims at regulating the different interests of water management, nature conservation and energy economy and combines the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive, the EU Flood Directive and the Renewable Energy Directive.
Several technical measure were taken to restore the ecological status of the Mur River. Obstacles to migrating fish were removed from the Mur river and its tributaries. Reminants of typical floodplain water bodies were re-connected to the river and new pools were proposed for amphibians. Habitats for amphibians have been restored by creating new ponds, artificial bank protections have been partially removed on a length of 4.7 km and the hydro power plant at Mur is now fish passable. Some 20.8 ha of alluvial forest have been protected and allochthonous trees were removed on 6.6 ha to foster the development of autochthonous forests.
The project was designed to be implemented by an innovative partnership between regional water and conservation authorities, a municipality, local angling bodies and landowners. An active and successful public awareness campaign included providing boat tours of the works for local landowners and other stakeholders to explain the LIFE project activities and gain support for the conservation measures. Other information events including school projects that involved high-ranking national and regional politicians.
This project is a good example to demonstrate the new “river policy” in Austria that adopts ‘river restoration’ approaches, rather than ‘river engineering’ techniques. Such methodologies and policy principles fit well with European Water Framework Directive and the beneficiary and participates applying similar holistic methods during future river management works.
An important policy issue that was highlighted by the project is the need to reconcile key needs for nature conservation with demands for renewable energy generation from small hydro power plants.