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A Social-Ecological Framework to Integrate Multiple Objectives for Environmental Flows Management


“Environmental flows” is a research discipline that emphasizes freshwater allocation in rivers to sustain desired ecological conditions and human well-being. The basis for environmental flow requirements has traditionally relied on hydrological and ecological data. Contemporary methods focus on detailed hydro-ecological relationships within river ecosystems; however, there is currently no structured approach to systematically incorporate socially relevant data into the environmental flows discipline. To address this limitation we developed a flexible framework that applies a social-ecological systems approach to account for multiple flow-related objectives that reflect both biophysical sustainability and societal preferences. First, we conceptualize the freshwater social-ecological system as a hierarchy of human and environmental domains. Then, we recommend stepwise procedures to assess flow-related vulnerabilities of important system attributes, address their feedbacks, and translate these assessments to a common classification for comparative analyses that guide holistic flow management decisions.