An interview with Hervé Piégay

A conversation with Dr. Hervé Piégay on November 12, 2014 in Corvallis, Oregon, at a biennial conference on improving the health of Oregon’s Willamette River sponsored by the Meyer Memorial Trust. Hervé is a fluvial geographer and is Research Director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Lyon, France. Hervé has visited Oregon many times and has developed long-term relationships with a number of Oregon-based researchers. He has published extensively on topics in fluvial geomorphology including channel formation, sediment transport, and large wood. He is involved in river management, planning, and restoration efforts around the world.

Kathleen: There is a lot of discussion today about the challenge of identifying restoration targets in novel ecosystems. Have you observed any differences between the USA and France in terms of expectations of restoring rivers to past conditions?

Hervé: Today ecologists in both places are very much in agreement based on my experience. We all see that fundamental processes may be changed, and require new approaches. But perhaps before that we were all influenced by Americans – we thought we would be able to repair rivers in the sense that we could go back in time – there was a feeling of guilt about what we were doing. Now we understand when we go deeper and deeper into studying and understanding a system – it is not the 19th century anymore- which perhaps was the target. In France the target might be prior to the Neolithic period because humans influenced Europe’s system for a long period of time. You have examples in Europe, where you had splash dams for example– the river has been straightened, deepened, with boulders removed.  A historical reference is sometimes idealized, but is not the best reference for the future. But communities do need healthy conditions and need an environment that is in good shape. Together we can ask, “How can we do better?” Ideas will not be completely shared, but this is an important conversation to have.

Kathleen: Can you talk about the concept of the ecological continuity of rivers (continuité écologique des cours d’eau) and whether you see any differences between French and US approaches?

Hervé: For you here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and west coast in general, the conversation revolves around salmon. For example, a graduate student I know named Emeline Comby, is analyzing public commentary on river management in California’s Sacramento River and on the Rhone in France and she is finding that the topics people discuss are completely different. In California, fish and fish habitat overwhelm other topics – the question of continuity of water for fish is very meaningful – so fish can pass obstacles and access habitat– and in the US it is an economic issue, not only an environmental issue. In France we have these debates but in a landscape that is much more humanized. We have Atlantic salmon, so there is a very nice opportunity to see if we can remove dams and weirs we built centuries ago to see if we can provide spawning habitat, but salmon is more of a patrimonial issue than an economic one – we are not at the same level in that sense but people may be convinced it can be economically meaningful, it can be more motivating for some people. The other aspect in France that may be different is the aspect of cultural heritage – some of the infrastructure we want to remove is a part of our cultural heritage. There are value conflicts and this means that there is a need for debate, and balance is key. One of the ways to find balance is to work at the basin scale. For example, on the western side of France around Limoges and elsewhere we can prioritize dam removal and discuss plans with the public and discuss the fact that some of the weirs are valuable culturally. Restoration is a political issue that needs to be addressed locally. People need to engage with questions like “what can we do with our river?”

In addressing problems you need to know why you are here – what are the drivers, who did what? For example, in the case of bank erosion, you may visit a site with elected official and they may say “look at that bank erosion by my soccer field, or my maize, we should protect this”.  The first question I have in mind is: how does this system work and why is it eroding? Sometimes it is eroding everywhere – it is a system in which bank erosion is a normal process – perhaps protecting banks is not a good solution – let’s see what other solutions we can find. Sometimes, we know that there is erosion, we see that there are problems and then we have to go deeper to see what is going on. And we may say in the end, ok, it does make sense in the framework that you have here to protect your bank, so there is not one solution, there are many and they are based on a good diagnosis.

Kathleen: What do you find compelling about the notion of ecosystem services in watershed management? What if anything is problematic in regards to the concept?

Hervé: Key opposition to the concept of ecosystem services is the utilitarian orientation of it. Estimating the intrinsic value of ecosystem services is a challenge – also values can be very different from one community to another so that is a critical point. We may expect environmental conscience should increase in the future and the value we give to ecosystem services would increase as well. The question now is to think about the benefits and the collective vision – sometimes if we maintain a natural environment, it will be more valuable than development – as long as we still have the ability to choose what we want to do. If it is possible, perhaps it is better to proceed this way to reduce costs for water, for example, to maintain life and resources and to manage floods. One problem is that costs are underestimated – so for example we might estimate costs locally without thinking about people downstream because either we did not understand that relationship or because in reality it is quite complicated to plan at very large scales – actions are also partly opportunistic. The critical factors are when we are ready, when we have money, and when we see the problem – often these come together when we have big floods – these also help people decide to act. It is good to strive for a more natural river corridor environment – not necessarily a pristine or wild system – but something more natural. As population densities increase we need to be innovative, and we can improve rivers even in the urban environment. We know that beyond flood risk management people in the urban environment are happy with restored rivers. It is valued more so I think we are going in a good direction.

Kathleen: Have you observed any ways in which the idea of ecosystem services or markets shapes the culture of restoration implementation?

Hervé: The idea of ecosystem services is complicated – for different reasons. In one instance, we had a project in the Rhone and a colleague from California submitted a proposal to work on the riparian forest and to quantify the economic benefits of riparian forests in the carbon market. Many other colleagues said “oh this is a very restrictive way to speak about an ecosystem, linking it to the market” – many people are not prepared for this. Also perhaps the community is not supportive – if it is mostly ecologists and academics – these actors are not fully linked to markets because we are often public actors – economic actors are not as involved. For example, in projects with an aim to lower or reconnect a floodplain, gravel removal is ecologically interesting – you have a real ecological improvement there. At the same time you can sell this gravel – depending on the market and the ambition of your project. But there is sometimes opposition. It is an ethical problem. But I think we should go there, because if we follow this logic, if we say “this is sustainable development” then the economic aspects should be fully integrated into the project. And there is no contradiction in terms of the ecological improvement and economic benefits of the community, so rather than having conflicts you can have win-win and multiform benefits. Rather than ecosystem services, I prefer “human wellbeing” which has a wider meaning. That said, I would be definitely not be convinced that ecosystem services can be completely central in decision-making because the intrinsic value of ecosystems is not shared by everybody. It can be an added value if the community considers it to be very important, but it cannot be the only thing, but then, I am a geographer so maybe this is not surprising that I say this.

Kathleen: Today many restoration ecologists look back on efforts to channelize streams from many decades ago (and in the case of Europe perhaps centuries ago) with some degree of horror. What contemporary restoration practices might you predict that restoration ecologists 50 or 100 years in the future will look back on with some degree of embarrassment?

Hervé: Yes, we were stupid. We are still, but we don’t know yet (joking, laughter). There are two issues here: what have we learned, and how we can transfer this knowledge to the countries that are undergoing major economic development right now? I say this because they are making exactly the same errors we made, especially in terms of constructing large dams. How can we transfer what we know without being arrogant? This is a big question. What we also see is that some of our companies are building the dams and they don’t care about the ethical concerns and the sustainability of their infrastructures. Today, many companies are doing completely different things in the third world than they can do in their home countries- this is also something which is not correct. Some environmental-friendly techniques exist but they are not implemented because they are slightly more expensive than more traditional ones. The market economy is a very important issue in terms of human and social development, individual development, and collective development, but it needs to be regulated. It needs to be controlled by the collective otherwise there are no constraints and so you exceed limits that people would agree to collectively. This is also not easy to do. In Amazonia, and in Asia, and other places, you see the number of dams which are planned – it is a big market –we are doing the same thing we did in our own countries – and collectively we are responsible.

Kathleen: Is there any way universities and other training grounds for students can do a better job of preparing them to deal with these potential ethical challenges?

Hervé: Yes, we need to place value in application – to think about applied work and value applied work with students – this is very important. When you are in a discipline that has a long tradition of fundamental research, sometimes this can be overlooked. I am as happy seeing a PhD student having a job in a university as in a private consulting company because if we want science to be open to society, science must be adapted as well. It is a question of adaptation in terms of what is valuable – and what you value in front of the students – but it is also a question of how you are providing knowledge. For example, in social science for a long time social scientists tried to be outside of society to observe it and for independent questioning. Now we know that is not the case. We know that the scientist is also inside the scene. How do we produce research in this context? I think that interdisciplinary approach is really good. This allows us to go back to see where our limits are. Social scientists have a different view than what the ecologists see. They can ask questions that help ecologists keep in mind, for example, that the past is not necessarily what we should strive to reach. This message is driven by a lot of ecologists because they do not understand the world in which we are living, and the reverse is also true – social scientists do not see things ecologists see so that sharing knowledge is a good way to find the right road. It is a new way to do research, once interdisciplinary groups are becoming mature and hybrid.


Dr. Herve Piégay

Dr. Hervé Piégay (l) and Dr. Stan Gregory (r)

Photos courtesy of Craig Strobeck