The paradigm shift in recent years towards sustainable and coherent water resources management on a river basin scale has changed the subject of investigations to a multi-scale problem representing a great challenge for all actors participating in the management process. In this regard, planning engineers often face an inherent conflict to provide reliable decision support for complex questions with a minimum of effort. This trend inevitably increases the risk to base decisions upon uncertain and unverified conclusions. This paper proposes an adaptive framework for integral planning that combines several concepts (flow balancing, water quality monitoring, process modelling, multi-objective assessment) to systematically evaluate management strategies for water quality improvement. As key element, an S/P matrix is introduced to structure the differentiation of relevant ‘pressures’ in affected regions, i.e. ‘spatial units’, which helps in handling complexity. The framework is applied to a small, but typical, catchment in Flanders, Belgium. The application to the real-life case shows: (1) the proposed approach is adaptive, covers problems of different spatial and temporal scale, efficiently reduces complexity and finally leads to a transparent solution; and (2) water quality and emission-based performance evaluation must be done jointly as an emission-based performance improvement does not necessarily lead to an improved water quality status, and an assessment solely focusing on water quality criteria may mask non-compliance with emission-based standards. Recommendations derived from the theoretical analysis have been put into practice.

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