Very few scientific projects in the world are even marginally associated with the creation of indicators to conserve and protect groundwater or GDE biodiversity. Most projects do not identify indicators but rather one or very few sentinel species, for a limited geographical area, as individual species sensitive to specific impacts or as tests for the efficacy of environmental rehabilitation projects (e.g., the LIFE04NAT/IT/000190 project on the coleopteran Osmoderma eremita). In no case, however, a system of indicators has ever been developed, and the step from a local, single-species view has never been taken further to an integrated approach focused on an indicator system on biodiversity at large.
The main product of the AQUALIFE project (i.e., an indicator system focused on groundwater and GDE biodiversity) therefore will be truly innovative. The added value of the project is in the consolidation of the indicator system for biodiversity in a package (AQUALIFE Package) which will facilitate the application of the indicator system itself, thus maximizing the number of potential users. The AQUALIFE Package will be disseminated nationally and internationally. The AQUALIFE Package puts together a series of user-friendly modules (easy-to-fill-out forms describing the structure, physicochemistry, and biology of the GDE under exam, handouts to facilitate the identification of any indicator species found in the GDE, graphical representations, the AQUALIFE expert system software to apply the indicator systems with a built-in tutorial, and a downloadable, all-encompassing user manual that will be made available at the project's Website). Such modules will allow the use of the indicator system also by non-experts. The AQUALIFE Package will be at the core of the project's practical approach and will maximize its applicability. All the project products will be made available online, aiding in their dissemination and potential use throughout Europe.
The AQUALIFE expert system can be applied to
- all water courses (streams, rivers), except the deep segments near the river mouth and similarly hard-to-sample locations, as described in the EU's Water Framework Directive (WFD);
- all types of headwater spring;
- wells and boreholes, which are the easiest access to underground aquifers (both inland and coastal);
- active caves, defined as those with permanent or intermittent water;
- groundwater-fed and seepage wetlands.
Therefore, the number of potential end users of the AQUALIFE expert system is very high. Among them, there are the biodiversity-dedicated regional agencies in Italy, especially the early-stage Incidence Assessment procedures that will be the basis for (inter alia) Environmental Impact Assessment projects, including whose within Sites of Community Importance (SCIs, as defined by the EU's "Habitat Directive") and/or Special Protection Areas (SPAs, as defined by the "Nature 2000" network). GDEs outside protected areas such as SCIs or SPAs also would benefit of a rigorous and reliable environmental assessment; for example, such groundwater-dependent water courses may enter a protected area downstreams of a disturbance, potentially impairing the SCI/SPA itself. The AQUALIFE Package is also targeted at Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) dedicated to the protection of the environment, which tend to be more receptive than governmental agencies. A simplification of the AQUALIFE "message" may be necessary to reach groundwater users (e.g., farmers, local water and hydropower managers, agencies involved in environmental impact assessments of projects potentially impacting biodiversity). The production of a layman report within the AQUALIFE project aims at facilitating the communication with non-expert end-users.
The AQUALIFE expert system will be originally developed in the Abruzzo region in central Italy, but it will be easily transferable to any Member State of the European Union (EU MS), with the only expected adaptation in local species lists. In fact, investigations on the impact on groundwater biodiversity of groundwater overexploitation for agricultural purposes have led to the same result of loss of groundwater biodiversity across Europe (including in Italy, France, and Germany): e.g., Dumas P., 2004: Irrigation as a disturbance for interstitial crustacean communities in a French Pyrenean alluvial aquifer. – Ann. Limnol. - Int. J. Lim. 40(2): 139–147. Dumas P. & Lescher-Moutoué F., 2001: Cyclopoid distribution in an agriculturally impacted alluvial aquifer. – Arch. Hydrobiol. 150(3): 511–528. Hahn H.J., Thulin B. & Griebler C., 2010: The potential use of fauna and bacteria as ecological indicators for the assessment of groundwater quality. – J. Environ. Monit. 12: 242–254. Di Lorenzo T. & Galassi D.M.P., 2013: Agricultural impact on Mediterranean alluvial aquifers: do groundwater communities respond? Fundam. Appl. Limnol. 182(4): 271-282. The loss in biodiversity may involve different individual species in different MSs, but the degree or risk of the loss will be comparable, within a reasonable range of natural or background wariation. The AQUALIFE Action D.1 ("blind evaluation" of the expert system by external test teams) explicitly calls for a validation test in France as a quality assurance / quality control of the expert system, with a detailed report highlighting shortcomings (if any) and any suggestions to fix them.