Recreate gravel bar and riffles

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Recreate gravel bar and riffles

Category 06. In-channel structure and substrate improvement

General description

Riffle-pool sequences are natural channel-features and important spawning habitat for fish, but also important habitat for rheophilic invertebrate species. These instream structures can be restored by re-establishing a natural flow and sediment regime which cause erosional and depositional processes. However, in many streams, discharge and/or sediment load is altered. If peak discharges are reduced (e.g. downstream from dams), restored reaches might not receive the flushing flows necessary to transport sediment; in streams with sediment deficits, high flows may cause channel-bed erosion, incision, and degradation.

Therefore, the creation of artificial gravel bars and riffles is an appropriate mitigation measure in such degraded systems. However, creating artificial bars and riffles is not a sustainable measure per se and thorough construction is and some maintenance may become necessary to keep the installations efficient. It is often required to install and periodically empty sediment traps upstream to protect the downstream spawning grounds from clogging, to redistribute the gravel and to add new material since some of the gravel is eroded. Moreover, it is preferable to disturb the gravel to avoid compaction of the substratum and to flush away fine sediment (gravel cleaning) (Rubin et al. 2004).

The backwater effect has to be considered in the design and development of the project, regarding to the maximum high of the gravel bed placed on the glide. When we add gravel at one degraded riffle, the water rises upstream and may flood the next upstream riffle, which can lose its functionality. One technique to prevent the undesired effects is the staged slope creation. Elkins et al. (2007) in a study at the River Waveney applied gravel augmentation to restore riffle-pool dynamics for habitat enhancement below a dam, so no riffle was affected upstream.

Three considerations determine the choice of the gravel-size used (Rubin et al. 2004):

  • Survival of the eggs inside the gravel (egg-to-fry survival of lithophilic fish in substratum <15 mm in diameter is generally very low).
  • Size of the spawning female: Gravel has to be small enough to allow adult females to move the particles.
  • Stability of the gravel: The gravel has to be large enough (average diameter) to resist major displacement by water flow.

Therefore, the optimal gravel-size differs between fish species and conditions at the restoration site (e.g. discharge, cross-section form, natural grain size in nearby natural reaches).

For brown trout (Salmo trutta) 15-30 mm gravel was used and for sea trout 15-60 mm in some successful restoration projects (Rubin et al. 2004, Sarriquet et al. 2007) and up to 150 mm in other restoration projects (Kasahara and Hill 2007). Kondolf & Wolman (1993) have determined median spawning gravel size between 5.4 mm and 78 mm in salmon and trout with 50% of the redds falling between 14.5 mm and 35 mm. In a lowland canal, Arlinghaus & Wolter (2003) found gravel size (39 ± 16 mm) being the determining factor for successful reproduction of chub Leuciscus cephalus, before flow velocity or depth.

The results of several studies show that it is crucial to prevent clogging of the interstitial spaces. Sediment traps can be installed upstream of the created riffles to trap fine sediment. However, as pointed out by Greig et al. (2005), the current granular measures of spawning and incubation habitat quality do not satisfactorily describe the complexity of factors influencing incubation success, such as (i) passage of oxygenated water through the gravel, (ii) for various reasons reduced intragravel O2 concentrations and (iii) the impact of fines on the O2 exchange across the egg membrane.


High suspended sediment and nutrient loads, which are typical for many streams in agricultural areas, restrict the use of gravel augmentation and artificial gravel bars and riffles.

  • In a nutrient rich lowland stream, with mean suspended sediment concentrations of 5 mg/l and 139 mg/l during high flows, large portions of the hyporheic zone of the riffles remained anaerobic although the constructed riffles induced downwelling-upwelling (Kasahara and Hill 2006). In a similar way, sediment input from catchment land-use and missing riparian buffers caused deposition of fine sediment (Levell and Chang 2008).
  • High suspended sediment loads especially restrict the success of gravel addition in re-meandered reaches (Pedersen et al. 2009), where channel-slope and flow velocity is low and the reaches potentially act as sediment traps.
  • High sediment and nutrient loads do also restrict the use of gravel cleaning. For example, in a gravel-bed river, gravel cleaning did significantly enhance dissolved oxygen concentrations. However, values rapidly reached pre-treatment conditions (within four month), obviously due to high fine sediment and nutrient loads (Meyer et al. 2008).

Growth of macrophytes during low-flow periods is another potential problem. For example, prolonged low-flow periods caused by an upstream dam caused the extensive growth of macrophytes which had an adverse effect on spawning use of the riffles by salmonids (Merz et al. 2008).

In lowland rivers of low energy, riffle reinstatement will produce desirable geomorphological and ecological changes if the riffles are spaced according to geomorphological ‘first principles’, and are shallow (less than 30 cm depth) under low-flow conditions (Harper et al. 1998). A minimum velocity of 40 cm/s and maximum depth of 25 cm is necessary during low-flow discharges for artificial riffles to function biologically as natural riffles in lowland rivers (Ebrahimnezhad and Harper 1997).

In sand bed-streams, the measure is only suitable where historical evidence suggests either significant natural reproduction or the presence of significant gravel substrate underlying the predominantly sandy streambed (Avery 1996). It is neither possible nor desirable to establish gravel in naturally sand-bed streams.

In larger rivers, existing uses like inland navigation may limit the provision of gravel bars and riffles if they have a significant adverse effect on fairway dimensions.

Expected effect of measure on (including literature citations):

HYMO (general and specified per HYMO element)

  • Increase in number of gravel bars and riffles, as well as pools (pools develop downstream of artificial riffles with a correct spacing similar to natural streams) (Harper et al. 1988).
  • Increases in stream velocity, gravel permeability and dissolved oxygen, and decreases in depths, intergravel water temperature, turbidity, and total suspended sediment, at least over a period of 2 years (Merz and Setka 2004).
  • The installation of gravel bedforms has also been shown to increase the physical habitat diversity of the reach, with a wider range of depth, velocity and substrate conditions (Sear and Newson 2004).
  • At bankfull discharge, water surface elevations are not significantly affected by the installation of riffles even in a low gradient channel (Sear and Newson 2004).

Physico-chemical parameters

  • Only minor effect on nutrient removal and denitrification (Kasahara and Hill 2007).
  • Only minor increase in suitable interstitial habitat with high dissolved oxygen concentrations in catchments with agricultural land-use and high input of fine sediment and nutrients (Kasahara and Hill 2006).

Biota (general and specified per Biological quality elements)

BQE Macroinvertebrates Fish Macrophytes Phytoplankton
Effect medium high no effect no effect


  • Artificial riffles can improve the habitats and increase biodiversity of macroinvertebrates compared to unrestored, degraded reaches (Edwards 1984) or even to levels similar to a natural riffle (Ebrahimnezhad and Harper 1997). Invertebrates quickly colonize new gravel bars and riffles, equalling and exceeding densities and biomass of unenhanced sites within 1 and 3 month, respectively (Merz and Chan 2005).
  • In less degraded rivers, there might be no significant effect on invertebrate diversity (i.e. all taxa are already present, some at relatively low levels and habitat-limited, which increase in number after restoration) (Walther and Whiles 2008)


  • Gravel additions can be successful even if the only available areas are suboptimal with respect to water flow and water depth. In sum, the results show that the careful addition of gravel areas can be used to provide suitable spawning locations for salmonids in regulated rivers (Barlaup et al. 2008, Edwards 1984).
  • Spawning-bed enhancement (gravel addition) can improve embryo survival in degraded rivers (Merz et al. 2004).


  • Probably only minor positive effect on macrophytes (benefits for certain pioneer plants could be assumed).


  • Probably no positive effect on phytoplankton

Temporal and spatial response

Pressures that can be addressed by this measure


Median cost-efficiency since maintenance work is often necessary and the measure mainly has a high positive effect on one single biological quality element (fish).

Case studies where this measure has been applied

Useful references

Arlinghaus, R. & Wolter, C. (2003) Amplitude of ecological potential: chub Leuciscus cephalus (L.) spawning in an artificial lowland canal. Journal of Applied Ichthyology 19: 52-54.

Avery, E. L. (1996) Evaluations of Sediment Traps and Artificial Gravel Riffles Constructed to Improve Reproduction of Trout in Three Wisconsin Streams. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 16, 282 - 293.

Barlaup, B. T., Gabrielsen, S. E., Skoglund, H. & Wiers, T. (2008) Addition of spawning gravel - a means to restore spawning habitat of Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar L.) and anadromous and resident brown trout (Salmo trutta L.) in regulated rivers. River Research and Applications, 24, 543-550.

Ebrahimnezhad, M. & Harper, D. M. (1997) The biological effectiveness of artificial riffles in river rehabilitation. 7, 187-197.

Edwards, C. J., Griswold, B. L., Tubb, R. A., Weber, E. C. & Woods, C. L. (1984) Mitigating effects of artificial riffles and pools on the fauna of a channelized warmwater streams. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 4, 194-203.

Elkins, E.E., G.B. Pasternack and J.E. Merz. 2007. The use of slope creation for rehabilitating incised, regulated, gravel-bed rivers, Water Resources Research 43 W05432. DOI: 10.1029/2006WR005159

Greig, S. M., Sear, D.A. & Carling, P. A. (2005) The impact of fine sediment accumulation on the survival of incubating salmon progeny: Implications for sediment management. Science of the Total Environment 344, 241– 258.

Harper, D., Ebrahimnezhad, M., I, . & Cot, F. (1998) Artificial riffles in river rehabilitation: setting the goals and measuring the successes. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 8, 5 - 16.

Jensen, D. W., Steel, E. A., Fullerton, A. H. & Pess, G. R. (2009) Impact of fine sediment on egg-to-fry survival of Pacific salmon: a meta-analysis of published studies. Reviews in Fisheries Science 17, 348-359.

Kasahara, T. & Hill, A. R. (2006) Effects of riffle-step restoration on hyporheic zone chemistry in N-rich lowland streams. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science , 63, 120 - 133.

Kasahara, T. & Hill, A. R. (2007) Lateral Hyporheic Zone Chemistry in an Artificially Constructed Gravel Bar and a Re-Meandered Stream Channel, Southern Ontario, Canada. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 43, 1257 - 1269.

Kondolf, G. M. & Wolman, M. G. (1993) The siizes of salmonid spawning gravels. Water Resources research 29, 2275-2285.

Lapointe, M. F., Bergeron, N. E., Bérubé, F., Pouliot, M.-A. & Johnston, P. (2004) Interactive effects of substrate sand and silt contents, redd-scale hydraulic gradients, and interstitial velocities on egg-to-emergence survival of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). Can J Fish Aquat Sci 61, 2271-2277.

Levell, A. P. & Chang, H. (2008) Monitoring the channel process of a stream restoration project in an urbanizing watershed: A case study of Kelley Creek, Oregon, USA. River Research and Applications, 182, 169 - 182.

Merz, J. E. & Chan, L. K. O. (2005) Effects of gravel augmentation on macroinvertebrate assemblages in a regulated California river. River Research and Applications, 21, 61-74.

Merz, J. E. & Setka, J. D. (2004) Evaluation of a spawning habitat enhancement site for Chinook salmon in a regulated California river. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 24, 397-407.

Merz, J. E., Setka, J. D., Pasternack, G. B. & Wheaton, J. M. (2004) Predicting benefits of spawning-habitat rehabilitation to salmonid ( Oncorhynchus spp.) fry production in a regulated California river. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science, 61, 1433 - 1446.

Merz, J. E., Smith, J. R., Workman, M. L., Setka, J. D. & Muchaey, B. (2008) Aquatic Macrophyte Encroachment in Chinook Salmon Spawning Beds: Lessons Learned from Gravel Enhancement Monitoring in the Lower Mokelumne River, California. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 28, 1568-1577.

Meyer, E. I., Niepagenkemper, O., Molls, F. & Spähnhoff B. (2008) An experimental assessment of the effectiveness of gravel cleaning operations in improving hyporheic water quality in potential salmonid spawning areas. River Research and Applications, 131, 119 - 131.

Pedersen, M. L., Kristensen, E. A., Kronvang, B. & Thodsen, H. (2009) Ecological effects of re-introduction of salmonid spawning gravel in lowland Danish streams. River Research and Applications, 638, 626 - 638.

Rubin, J., Glimsater, C. & Jarvi, T. (2004) Characteristics and rehabilitation of the spawning habitats of the sea trout, Salmo trutta, in Gotland (Sweden). Fisheries Management and Ecology, 11, 15 - 22.

Sarriquet, P. E., Bordenave, P. & Marmonier, P. (2007) Effects of bottom sediment restoration on interstitial habitat characteristics and benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages in a headwater stream. River Research and Applications, 23, 815-828.

Sear, D. A. & Newson, M. D. (2004) The hydraulic impact and performance of a lowland rehabilitation scheme based on pool-riffle installation: the River Waveney, Scole, Suffolk, UK. River Research and Applications, 20, 847 - 863.

Walther, D. A. & Whiles, M. R. (2008) Macroinvertebrate responses to constructed riffles in the Cache River, Illinois, USA. Environmental management, 41, 516 - 27.

Other relevant information

Egg to emergence survival is not only determined by gravel size and the fraction of fines, sand and silt, but also from hydraulic gradients and interstitial flow velocities (both not unrelated to the amount of fines). In Atlantic salmon sand contents >10% and silt loads >1.5% significantly impaired survival and were hardly to mitigate by higher hydraulic gradients (Lapointe te al. 2004). In Pacific salmon species, a 1% increase in percent fines <0.85 mm will result in about a 17% reduction in the odds of survival over all species analysed (Jensen et al. 2009).

In flow regulated rivers of largely reduced hydromorphological dynamics gravel bars typically do not sustain and become siltated in due course. To circumvent this problem, small gravel patches can be provided at groyne heads and in fish migration facilities. Both structures are exposed to certain flows keeping at least parts of the gravel free of fine sediments and suitable for spawning over longer temporal scales.