Modify aquatic vegetation maintenance

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Modify aquatic vegetation maintenance

Category 06.In-channel structure and substrate improvement

General description

Many streams, especially in the lowland regions, are located in agricultural areas. Due to the lack of riparian forests and shading as well as high nutrient inputs, excessive growth of aquatic vegetation (macrophytes) is common. Maintenance of these streams usually includes the mechanical removal of aquatic vegetation several times per year to ensure the efficient drainage of agricultural areas, reduce sedimentation and flooding risks.

This management practice favours macrophyte species able to cope with a high level of physical disturbance while intolerant species become rare or disappear (homogenization of macrophyte communities), and frequent cuttings decrease macrophyte diversity (Baatrup-Pedersen and Riis 2004). Moreover, fish and invertebrates are affected by weed cutting since macrophytes are important habitats in lowland streams, cutting increases animal drift (Statzner and Stechmann, 1977, Kern-Hansen, 1978, Meyer, 1987), and a large number of animals are removed with the cut plants (Pearson and Jones, 1978, Dawson et al., 1991).

To mitigate the negative effects of dredging or weed cutting, several guidelines recommend to leave some macrophytes, either on one or both sides of the channel or as alternating patches that induce a sinuous flow pattern (e.g. DWA 2010) and to cut the weeds in summer rather than in spring.

ModifyWeedCut1.jpg ModifyWeedCut2.jpg

Fig. 1. Conventional (left) and modified, alternating (right) weed-cutting practices in a lowland stream (Untermilde, Germany, photos courtesy of R. Bostelmann, DWA 2010).


Modifying aquatic vegetation maintenance is a mitigation measure to reduce the impact of dredging and weed cutting on stream biota.

It should be applied in lowland streams in agricultural areas only where the options for stream restoration is limited. Preferably, riparian forested buffer strips should be restored to provide more ecological benefits (e.g. shading, input of organic material like leaves and large wood) and to develop more natural habitat conditions (given that the streams are naturally bordered by riparian forests).

Expected effect of measure on (including literature citations):

HYMO (general and specified per HYMO element)

  • Modified weed-cutting practices decrease water level to an acceptable level compared to the complete removal of the macrophytes (flume studies indicate that alternating weed cutting, where about 40% of the weeds are left, already results in 85% of the drop of the water level compared to the complete removal of the weeds, Vereecken et al. 2006).
  • Modified weed-cutting practices increase water depth (since plant removal decreases water depth, Kaenel and Uehlinger 1999).
  • Modified weed-cutting practices can increase flow-velocity in the narrow cut part of the channel cross-section, resulting in clean gravel patches.

Physico-chemical parameters

  • Modified weed-cutting practices do not cause significant lower oxygen concentrations at night compared to the complete removal since the removal of plants results only in a moderate increase in nocturnal oxygen concentrations (Kaenel and Uehlinger 1999, Kaenel et al. 2000).

Biota (general and specified per Biological quality elements)

BQE Macroinvertebrates Fish Macrophytes Phytoplankton
Effect high medium high no effect


  • Modified weed-cutting practices increase the number of invertebrates and taxa using macrophytes as habitat compared to conventional weed-cutting. These effects can be expected since plant cutting substantially or even dramatically decreases the number of invertebrates (20-65%) and mainly affects taxa that use macrophytes as habitat (e.g. Simuliidae, Chironomidae), whereas highly mobile taxa (e.g. Ephemeroptera) and taxa living on or within the bed sediments (e.g. Trichoptera, Bivalvia) are less affected (Dawson et al. 1991, Kaenel et al. 1998). Invertebrate recovery seems to be seasonally dependent, with cutting having a less severe impact during summer than spring. Moreover, recovery depends on source populations in unaffected reaches upstream since invertebrates recolonize the impact reaches by drift (Kaenel et al. 1998).
  • Modified weed-cutting practices (25% of macrophytes left, short weed-cutting reaches separated by undisturbed reaches) do not cause significant differences in faunal parameters as biotic scores, richness, abundance, and species composition compared to undisturbed reaches (Armitage et al. 1994).
  • Conventional weed-cutting practices remove a lower share of species that reside in the sediment like unionid mussels (about 3%) compared to other invertebrate species (20-65%). Nevertheless, weed-cutting is probably a major factor in the decline of mussels due to the high turbidity during weed-cutting and subsequent silt deposition. Moreover, mussels are prone to disturbance by weed-cutting since re-colonization is slow (Aldridge 2000). Therefore, even species living in the sediment like unionid mussels will probably benefit from modified weed-cutting practices.


  • Especially 0+ fish will probably benefit from modified weed-cutting practices since growth rates of 0+ fish decreased due to excessive weed-cutting and lower food availability (zooplankton) (Garner et al. 1996), and mortality of trout fry (Salmo trutta L.) increased (Mortenson 1977).
  • Reduced removal and damage of fish. Machinery physically removes some species, and pike (E. lucius) have been found with severe gashes indicative of damage by weed cutters. The drop in water level during dredging and weed cutting may expose fish eggs, such as those of roach, to desiccation (Aldridge 2000).
  • Alternative maintenance protocols (weed cutting) for drainage channels and ditches have been proposed to protect weatherfish Misgurnus fossilis populations (Meyer & Hinrichs 2000), which will serve other phytophilic fish as well.


  • Increase in macrophyte diversity results from less frequent weed cuttings. Cutting in several narrow channels is preferable to cutting in one central channel as directional changes in plant communities towards disturbance-tolerant species are avoided (Baatrup-Pedersen and Riis 2004).


  • Modified weed-cutting practices probably only have minor effect on phytoplankton.

Temporal and spatial response

Pressures that can be addressed by this measure


High cost-efficiency since it is a low-cost mitigation measure with a medium to high ecological effect.

Case studies where this measure has been applied

Useful references

Aldridge, D. C. (2000) The impacts of dredging and weed cutting on a populationof freshwater mussels (Bivalvia: Unionidae). Biological Conservation, 95, 247-257.

Armitage, P. D., Blackburn, J. H., Winder, J. M. & Wright, J. F. (1994) Impact of vegetation management on macroinvertebrates in chalk streams. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 4, 95-104.

Baatrup-Pedersen, A. & Riis, T. (2004) Impacts of different weed cutting practices on macrophyte species diversity and composition in a Danish stream. River Research and Applications, 20, 103-114.

Dawson, F.H., Clinton, E.M.F. & Ladle, M. (1991) Invertebrates on cut weed removed during weed-cutting operations along an English river, the River Frome. Aquatic Fisheries Management, 22, 113–121.

DWA (Deutsche Vereinigung für Wasserwirtschaft, Wasser und Abfall) (2010) Neue Wege der Gewässerunterhaltung – Pflege und Entwicklung kleiner Fließgewässer. Merkblatt DWA-M 610.

Garner, P. Bass, J. A. B. & Collett, G. D. (1996) The effects of weed cutting upon biota of a large regulated river. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 6, 21-29. Kaenel, B. R. & Uehlinger U. (1999) Aquatic plant management: ecological effects in two streams of the Swiss Plateau. Hydrobiologia, 415, 257-263.

Kaenel, B. R., Buehrer, H. & Uehlinger, U. (2000) Effects of aquatic plant management on stream metabolism and oxygen balance in streams. Freshwater Biology, 45, 85-95.

Kaenel, B. R., Matthaei, C. D. & Uehlinger, U. (1998) Disturbance by aquatic plant management in streams: effects on benthic invertebrates. Regulated Rivers: Research and Management, 14, 341-356.

Kern-Hansen, U. (1978) Drift of Gammarus pulex L. in relation to macrophyte cutting in four small Danish lowland-streams. Verhandlungen der internationalen Vereinigung für Limnologie, 20, 1440–1445.

Meyer L & Hinrichs D (2000) Microhabitat preferences and movements of the weatherfish, Misgurnus fossilis, in a drainage channel. Environmental Biology of Fishes, 58, 297–306.

Meyer, E. (1987) Der Einfluss einer mechanischen Erkrautungsmassnahme auf Hydrographie, Chemie und Makrozoobenthon eines Entwässerungsgrabens. Wasser und Boden, 39, 75–80.

Mortenson, E. (1977) Density-dependant mortality of trout fry Salmo trutta L. and its relationship to the management of small streams. Journal of Fish Biology, 11, 613-617.

Pearson, R.G. & Jones, N.V. (1978) The effects of weed-cutting on the macroinvertebrate fauna of a canalised section of the river Hull, a northern English chalk stream. Environmental Management, 7, 91–97.

Statzner, B. & Stechmann, D.H. (1977). Der Einfluss einer mechanischen Entkrautungsmassnahme auf die Driftraten der Makro-Invertebraten im Unteren Schierenseebach. Faunistisch-ökologische Mitteilungen, 5, 93–109.

Vereecken, H., Baetens, J., Viaene, P., Mostaert, F. & Meire, P. (2006) Ecological management of aquatic plants: effects in lowland streams. Hydrobiologia 570, 205-210.

Other relevant information