Master’s Thesis 2006, Institute for Ecopreneurship IEC, FHNW, Switzerland

HANDLING WATER an approach to holistic river rehabilitation design

Niels Werdenberg
Conservation biologist, environmental engineer

“…A wholly excellent work and highly recommended reading for any serious student of river engineering and water resources management generally.”
Callum Coats, Ecotechnology expert


This work aims at describing natural flow phenomena and liquid structuring in rivers and the significance of natural dynamics for river engineering. In summary it provides a possible holistic approach to rivers and waterway health. Since natural flow characteristics are often overlooked in mainstream hydrologic theory, this work draws mostly on observations and research from outside of mainstream science, mainly on the alternative hydrologic approach by Austrian researcher Viktor Schauberger, (1885-1958).

Various engineered river installations are presented and their influences on flow patterns are discussed. As shown by the author, river engineers could benefit from perceiving engineering efforts as communication with the river’s natural energy flow through aspects of form and motion: In a successful communication, respectively small designs seem to amplify and multiply desired flow patterns, e.g. taking pressure away from the banks by evoking guiding secondary currents, whereas a lack in this communication seems to produce resistance and strain and lowers efficiency of the engineering effort.

Amongst flow behaviour, this paper highlights further aspects of a holistic approach to water: Unlike many other substances, water does not always follow scientific rules, and cutting-edge research on phenomena like water memory or energetic water quality suggests new aspects for a sustainable handling of water. Some findings of modern water research could be crucial for water engineering, i.e. river rehabilitation could profit from design approaches incorporating the concept of energetic water quality or cultural aspects regarding the water’s function, value and purpose.

Exemplary for a successful practical combination of both natural flow behaviour and energetic water quality, this paper portrays the holistic river regulation design by Austrian river engineer Otmar Grober. Consisting of natural materials, Grober’s engineering solutions serve as efficient flood and erosion protection. They are cost saving and seem to accelerate recovery of the rehabilitated waterways by improving chemical and energetic water quality. In the final chapter, the author implements the viewpoints presented throughout this work in an analysis of a current river rehabilitation experiment operated by the Australian Griffith University.

The University introduced various engineered wooden structures for flow regulation and habitat restoration in two degraded and cleaned Australian rivers. With a design based on mainstream hydrological concepts, these log structures successfully provided habitat for aquatic biota, but seemed to perform only inefficiently as flow deflectors. Amongst other suggestions, the author was able to promote an adjustment of the log structure’s front shape according to natural flow dynamics, resulting in an inward spiralling of flow energy, which can be efficiently guided in the desired direction.

The complete Master’s Thesis is available here: