Dr Peter Downs

Dr Peter Downs

Associate Professor in Physical Geography

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (Faculty of Science and Engineering)


I am a chartered fluvial geomorphologist (CGeog (Geomorph)) with teaching, research and consultancy interests focussed on the impacts of human activities on the dynamics of river environments and the role of geomorphology in promoting sustainable river management and restoration.  Recent research has involved modelling cumulative impact assessment of land and river management activities on river channel morphology in the late Anthropocene, high-resolution monitoring and prediction of coarse bedload sediment transport, planning and monitoring of gravel augmentation downstream of dams, the development of spatially-explicit sediment budgets to help preserve salmon habitat, the role of baseline data in developing sustainable approaches to river restoration, and strategies for sediment management during dam removal.

My teaching interests at Plymouth are informed by my research expertise.  My undergraduate teaching is focussed on the fundamental science of river environments, how natural catchment processes are influenced by human activities and how to restore environmentally-damaged rivers.  At Masters level, I teach about how to use ecosystem services to achieve sustainability in river basin management.  My classes include a combination of formal lectures, project-led coursework, and field-based practical assignments.  I also contribute to undergraduate and postgraduate residential field classes.

My research and teaching is based on experiences gained during a career that includes both academia and professional practice: I was a lecturer at the University of Nottingham in the 1990s before spending a decade as a consultant scientist in California.  Since joining Plymouth University in 2010, I have directed the IEMA-accredited Masters degree in Sustainable Environmental Management (2010-2017), and was the Honorary Secretary of the British Society for Geomorphology (2011-2014), working to promote geomorphology research and the professional status of geomorphology in the UK; I chaired the BSG's Annual Conference in Plymouth in 2016.  In 2016-17, I was a EURIAS Senior Fellow, at the Collegium IAS, Universite de Lyon, France.  In 2017, I was appointed as a conservation lead to the Environment Agency's South West Regional Flood and Coastal Committee.

2005:     CGeog (Geomorph) [Chartered Geographer with Geomorphology focus] Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), UK

1992:     Ph.D. Department of Geography, University of Southampton, UK

1988:     B.Sc. (Hons) Geography.  Department of Geography, University of Leicester, UK

July 2010 -       Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer), SoGEES, University of Plymouth, UK

2002 - 2010:    Senior Fluvial Geomorphologist, Stillwater Sciences, Berkeley, CA, USA
2000 - 2002:    Senior Associate, PWA Ltd., San Francisco, CA, USA
1993 - 2000:    Lecturer, School of Geography, University of Nottingham, UK
1991 - 1992:    Teaching Fellow, Department of Geography, University of Southampton, UK

Professional membership

Member, British Society for Geomorphology (Honorary Secretary 2011-14; Chair of Annual Conference 2016)
Fellow, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
Member, American Geophysical Union

Roles on external bodies

Conservation lead, Environment Agency's South West Regional Flood and Coastal Committee

Honorary Secretary, British Society for Geomorphology 2011-2014; conference chair 2016

Initial Assessor for Royal Geographical Society Chartered Geographer applications 2013-

UK National Delegate to the International Association of Geomorphologists 2012-2014

Project Advisory Group for Environment Agency R&D project 'Working with Natural Processes to Reduce Flood Risk' 2013-2014

Editorial Advisory Panel: Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers - Water Management, 2010-2013

Lead Scientist for California Bay-Delta Authority - Environmental Water Program, 2002-2005

Participant in USBR Subcommittee of Sedimentation: Science and Policy for Dam Removal (Federal Advisory Committee on Water Information), 2008-

Participant in ASCE Task Committee on Sedimentation Engineering for River Restoration, 1999–2000 

Inaugural coordinator and institutional contact for Midlands Consortium for Graduate Research Training in Physical Geography, 1996–1999 

Teaching interests

GEES505 - Sustainable Management of Freshwater Environments (module leader)
Sustainable environmental planning of land and water resources in the EU requires an ecosystem approach to river basin management.  We explore the inherent challenges to this approaches including the environmental legacy of earlier management approaches, how to work with natural catchment processes and flood regimes, and how to integrate diverse stakeholder viewpoints into a performance-based management framework. 

GGP3200 - Restoring Freshwater Environments(module leader)
A legacy of historical mismanagement has degraded the environmental value of freshwaters worldwide, not only destroying aquatic habitat  but increasing flood and drought hazards as well as threats to human well-being.  The module develops a critical understanding  of how humans have affected natural catchment processes and the techniques available for sustainably restoring such degraded environments.  The module is particularly relevant to students seeking a career in environmental management.

GGP2201 - Catchment and River Environments
The module aims to develop knowledge of how catchment and river systems work: from the transfer of water from hillslope to the channel, to the transport of water and sediment in streams and rivers. These processes are set in the context of human impacts on the environment and learning is supported by interactive field and laboratory-based practicals.

GGX2200 - Fieldwork in Geography (module leader)

GEES519 - Research Methods (MSc fieldtrip convenor)

GEES1001PP- Natural Hazards

GGX3203 - Work-based learning (tutor)

Research interests

Overarching Theme

Basic, applicable, and applied research in geomorphology and environmental science that contributes towards sustainable and equitable approaches to integrated river basin management 

Example interests

Disentangling natural from human influences in river channel morphodynamics

Distributed sediment budgets as an indicator of cause-and-effect based catchment change

Potential impacts of climate fluctuations on river channel changes

Habitat impacts of river flow and morphology changes in urban environments

River channel sensitivity as a risk-based approach to river management

Use of targeted biophysical impacts in river management and engineering

River restoration: baseline assessment, design, and the improvement of future practice through monitoring and evaluation 

The role of ecosystem services in river basin management and planning

Research degrees awarded to supervised students

As primary or secondary supervisor:

Anna Wood 2001 ‘A Geomorphological Analysis of Bank Toe Processes: the fate of failed blocks in the basal zone of incised channels’

Philip Soar 2000 ‘Channel Restoration Design for Meandering Rivers’

Kevin Skinner 1999 ‘Geomorphological post-project appraisal of river rehabilitation schemes in England’

Grants & contracts

At Plymouth University

Westcountry Rivers Trust / Wessex Water 2017-18, Monitoring the dynamics of gravel augmentation of Sutton Bingham Dam, with D. Gilvear.

Santa Clara River Trustee Council 2017, Thinking outside of the reach: how new science might improve the sustainability of river management, with T. Dudley, B. Orr.

EU Marie Curie EURIAS Senior Fellowship 2016-17, Rivers in the Anthropocene: an integrated analysis of cumulative historical human impacts on fluvial systems and their management implications.

Westcountry Rivers Trust / Southwest Water 2016-18, Evaluation of biophysical status alterations caused by gravel augmentation on dam-impacted rivers in south-west England, with D. Gilvear

Westcountry Rivers Trust / Wessex Water, 2016, Gravel augmentation feasibility study, with D. Gilvear.

Westcountry Rivers Trust / Southwest Water, 2014-15, Gravel augmentation planning and monitoring on rivers impacted by dams in South West England.

Seale-Hayne Educational Trust, 2011-13, Coarse sediment dynamics of rivers rising on Dartmoor National Park: implications for conservation and rural land management, with R. Hartley, P. Ganderton.

River Restoration Centre, 2012. Rehabilitation potential of the Marsh Mills reach of the Long Brook, Plymouth.

Plymouth University VC Research Community Award, 2012-13, Wrong connections: water quality problems in urban nature reserves, with W. Blake, A. Taylor, H. Smith, K. Solman

At Stillwater Sciences

California Department of Fish and Game, 2009-10, Watershed Geomorphic Assessment and River Bains Plan: Santa Rosa Creek, San Luis Opispo County, CA

Los Angeles County Department of Public Works / US Army Corps of Engineers, 2009-10, Watershed Geomorphic Processes and Sediment Yield Assessment: Upper Santa Clara River, Los Angeles County, CA

Association of Bay Area Governments, 2008-10, Watershed Sediment Budget: Lagunitas Creek, Marin County, CA

California Department of Fish and Game, 2006-08, Watershed Geomorphic Processes and Channel Stability Assessment: Santa Paula Creek, Ventura County, CA
California Coastal Conservancy, 2004-07, Watershed Geomorphic Processes and Channel Morphodynamics Response Assessment: Lower Santa Clara River, Ventura County, CA 

Marin County Department of Public Works, 2006-07, Watershed Sediment Delivery Assessment: Lagunitas Creek, Marin County, CA

California Bay-Delta Authority - Ecosystem Restoration Program, 2003-07, Baseline Physical and Biological Monitoring and Restoration Design Development: Lower Merced River, Merced County, CA

Golden Gate National Recreation Area (National Parks Service), 2003-04, Process-based Historical Sediment Budgets: Redwood Creek, Marin County, CA

California Bay-Delta Authority - Environmental Water Program, 2002-05, Flow Acquisition Planning for Adaptive Management-based Ecosystem Restoration: Central Valley, CA.

At University of Nottingham

Otago Regional Council, New Zealand, 1999, Watershed Geomorphic Processes Assessment and Rehabilitation Planning: Water of Leith, Otago, New Zealand

Environment Agency, Midlands Region, 1994-2000, Restoration Design Development and Post-project Monitoring: River Idle, Nottinghamshire 

University of Louisville, Kentucky, 2000, Geomorphological Appraisal of River Restoration Schemes 

US Department of Agriculture, National Sedimentation Laboratory, 1998-2000, Geomorphology of Bank Stability Processes in Incised Channels and Related Management Issues, with A. Simon and S.J. Bennett 

National Rivers Authority/ Environment Agency, 1995-98, Geomorphological and Hydraulic Impacts of Environmentally Aligned Flood Defence Measures, with C.R. Thorne 

National Rivers Authority, 1996, Geomorphological Approaches to River Management: Research & Development Project 661, with C.R. Thorne, M.J. Clark, D.A. Sear and M.D. Newson 

University of Nottingham New Lecturer Research Grant, 1993-96, Spatial Variability in River Channel Adjustments: Drainage Basin Characteristics and Morphological Criteria

Key publications are highlighted

Downs PW & Piegay H 2019 'Catchment-scale cumulative impact of human activities on river channels in the late Anthropocene: implications, limitations, prospect' Geomorphology 338, 88-104 , DOI PEARL
Downs PW, Dusterhoff S, Leverich G, Soar P & Napolitano N 2017 'Fluvial system dynamics derived from distributed sediment budgets: perspectives from an uncertainty-bounded application' Earth Surface Processes and Landforms , DOI PEARL
Soar PJ & Downs PW 2017 'Estimating bedload transport rates in a gravel-bed river using seismic impact plates: Model development and application' Environmental Modelling & Software 90, 182-200 , DOI PEARL
Brown AG, Tooth S, Bullard JE, Thomas DSG, Chiverrell RC, Plater AJ, Murton J, Thorndycraft VR, Tarolli P 2016 'The geomorphology of the Anthropocene: emergence, status and implications' Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 42, (1) 71-90 , DOI
Beller EE, Downs PW, Grossinger RM, Orr BK & Salomon MN 2015 'From past patterns to future potential: using historical ecology to inform river restoration on an intermittent California river' Landscape Ecology 31, (3) 581-600 , DOI
Downs PW, Soar PJ & Taylor A 2015 'The anatomy of effective discharge: the dynamics of coarse sediment transport revealed using continuous bedload monitoring in a gravel-bed river during a very wet year' Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 41, (2) 147-161 , DOI
Booth DB, Leverich G, Downs PW, Dusterhoff S & Araya S 2014 'A Method for Spatially Explicit Representation of Sub-watershed Sediment Yield, Southern California, USA' ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT 53, (5) 968-984 Author Site , DOI
Gregory KJ, Lane SL, Lewin J, Ashworth PJ, Downs PW, Kirkby MJ & Viles HA 2013 'Communicating geomorphology: global challenges for the 21st Century' Earth Surface Processes and Landforms , DOI
Downs PW, Dusterhoff SR & Sears WA 2013 'Reach-scale channel sensitivity to multiple human activities and natural events: Lower Santa Clara River, California, USA' Geomorphology 189, 121-134 , DOI
Brown AG, Tooth S, Chiverrell RC, Rose J, Thomas DSG, Wainwright J, Bullard JE, Thorndycraft VR, Aalto R 2013 'The Anthropocene: is there a geomorphological case?' EARTH SURFACE PROCESSES AND LANDFORMS 38, (4) 431-434 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW, Singer MS, Orr BK, Diggory ZE & Church TC 2011 'Restoring Ecological Integrity in Highly Regulated Rivers: The Role of Baseline Data and Analytical References' ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT 48, (4) 847-864 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW, Cui Y, Wooster JK, Dusterhoff SR, Booth DB, Dietrich WE & Sklar L 2009 'Managing reservoir sediment release in dam removal projects: an approach informed by physical and numerical modelling of non-cohesive sediment' International Journal of River Basin Management 7, (4) 433-452 , DOI
Gregory KJ, Benito G & Downs PW 2008 'Applying fluvial geomorphology to river channel management: Background for progress towards a palaeohydrology protocol' GEOMORPHOLOGY 98, (1-2) 153-172 Author Site , DOI
Caruso BS & Downs PW 2007 'Rehabilitation and flood management planning in a steep, boulder-bedded stream' ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT 40, (2) 256-271 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW & Kondolf GM 2002 'Post-project appraisals in adaptive management of river channel restoration' ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT 29, (4) 477-496 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW & Simon A 2001 'Fluvial geomorphological analysis of the recruitment of large woody debris in the Yalobusha River network, Central Mississippi, USA' GEOMORPHOLOGY 37, (1-2) 65-91 Author Site , DOI
Wood AL, Simon A, Downs PW & Thorne CR 2001 'Bank-toe processes in incised channels: the role of apparent cohesion in the entrainment of failed bank materials' HYDROLOGICAL PROCESSES 15, (1) 39-61 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW & Thorne CR 2000 'Rehabilitation of a lowland river: Reconciling flood defence with habitat diversity and geomorphological sustainability' JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT 58, (4) 249-268 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW & Priestnall G 1999 'System design for catchment-scale approaches to studying river channel adjustments using a GIS' INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF GEOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION SCIENCE 13, (3) 247-266 Author Site , DOI
Brookes A, Downs P & Skinner K 1998 'Uncertainty in the engineering of wildlife habitats' JOURNAL OF THE CHARTERED INSTITUTION OF WATER AND ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT 12, (1) 25-29 Author Site
Downs PW & Thorne CR 1998 'Design principles and suitability testing for rehabilitation in a flood defence channel: The River Idle, Nottinghamshire, UK' AQUATIC CONSERVATION-MARINE AND FRESHWATER ECOSYSTEMS 8, (1) 17-38 Author Site , DOI
Priestnall G & Downs PW 1996 'Automated parameter estimation for catchment scale river channel studies: The benefits of raster-vector integration' IAHS-AISH Publication (235) 215-223
Downs PW & Thorne CR 1996 'A geomorphological justification of river channel reconnaissance surveys' TRANSACTIONS OF THE INSTITUTE OF BRITISH GEOGRAPHERS 21, (3) 455-468 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW 1995 'Estimating the probability of river channel adjustment' EARTH SURFACE PROCESSES AND LANDFORMS 20, (7) 687-705 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW & Gregory KJ 1995 'Approaches to River Channel Sensitivity*' The Professional Geographer 47, (2) 168-175 , DOI
Downs PW & Gregory KJ 1995 'Approaches to river channel sensitivity' Professional Geographer 47, (2) 168-175
Gregory KJ, Davis RJ & Downs PW 1992 'Identification of River Channel Change Due to Urbanisation' Applied Geography 12, (4) 299-318 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW, Gregory KJ & Brookes A 1991 'How Integrated is River Basin Management?' Environmental Management 15, (3) 299-309 Author Site , DOI
Editorial comments
Downs PW, Singer MS, Orr BK, Diggory ZE, Church TC & Stella JC 2012 'Restoring Ecological Integrity in Highly Regulated Rivers: The Role of Baseline Data and Analytical References (vol 48, pg 847, 2011)' ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT 50, (4) 787-787 Author Site , DOI
Downs PW & Gregory KJ 2004 River Channel Management: towards sustainable catchment hydrosystems. Hodder Arnold
Beechie T, Pess G, Morley S, Butler L, Downs PW, Maltby A, Skidmore P, Clayton S, Muhlfeld C, et. al 2012 'Watershed assessments and identification of restoration needs' in Roni P; Beechie T Stream and Watershed Restoration: A Guide to Restoring Riverine Processes and Habitats Chichester Wiley-Blackwell 50-113
Downs PW & Booth DB 2011 'Geomorphology in Environmental Management' in Gregory KJ; Goudie AS The SAGE Handbook of Geomorphology London SAGE Publications 78-104
Cui, Y, Dusterhoff, S R, Wooster, J K & Downs PW 2011 'Practical Considerations for Modeling Sediment Transport Dynamics in Rivers' in Simon, A; Bennett, S J; Castro J Stream Restoration in Dynamic Fluvial Systems: Scientific Approaches, Analyses, and Tools Washington DC American Geophysical Union 503-527
Gregory KJ & Downs PW 2008 'The sustainability of restored rivers: catchment-scale perspectives on long-term response' in Darby SE; Sear DA River Restoration: managing the uncertainty in restoring physical habitat Chichester J.Wiley & Sons 253-286
Downs PW & Priestnall G 2005 'Modelling Catchment Processes' Tools in Fluvial Geomorphology John Wiley & Sons, Ltd 205-230 , DOI
Downs PW & Priestnall G 2003 'Tools in Fluvial Geomorphology' in Kondolf GM; Piégay H Tools in Fluvial Geomorphology Chichester Wiley 203-228
Downs PW, Skinner KS & Kondolf GM 2002 'Rivers and streams' in Perrow MR; Davy AJ Handbook of Ecological Restoration: Volume 2, Restoration in Practice Cambridge Cambridge University Press 267-296
Downs PW 2001 'Geomorphological evaluation of river restoration schemes: principles, method, monitoring, assessment, evaluation. Progress?' in Nijland HJ; Cals MJR River Restoration in Europe: practical approaches Lelystad Institute for Inland Water Management and Waste Water Treatment / RIZA 243-249
Downs PW, Skinner KS & Soar PJ 1999 'Muddy Waters: issues in assessing the impact of in-stream structures for river restoration' in Rutherford I; Bartley R Second Australian Stream Management Conference: the challenge of rehabilitating Australia’s streams Adelaide 211-217
Downs PW & Thorne CR 1998 'Planning for rehabilitation in a flood defence channel: the River Idle, UK' in Hansen HO; Madsen BL River Restoration ’96 – session lectures proceedings Silkeborg National Environmental Research Institute 96-103
Priestnall G & Downs PW 1996 'Automated parameter estimation for catchment scale river channel studies: The benefits of raster-vector integration' 215-223 Author Site
Kondolf GM & Downs PW 1996 'Catchment approach to channel restoration' in Brookes A; Shields FDJ River Restoration: guiding principles for sustainable projects Chichester J.Wiley & Sons 129-148
DOWNS PW 1995 'River channel adjustment sensitivity to drainage basin characteristics: Implications for channel management planning in south-east England' 247-263 Author Site
Downs PW 1995 'River channel classification for channel management purposes' in Gurnell AM; Petts GE Changing River Channels Chichester John Wiley & Sons Inc 347-365
Downs PW & Brookes A 1994 'Developing a standard geomorphological approach for the appraisal of river projects' in Kirby C; White WR Integrated river basin development Chichester John Wiley & Sons 299-310
Priestnall P & Downs PW 1994 'GIS as a tool for studying river channel adjustments' in Fisher P Proceedings of the GIS Research UK 1994 Conference Leicester 110-122
Downs PW & Gregory KJ 1993 'The Sensitivity of River Channels in the Landscape System' in Thomas DSG; Allison RJ Landscape Sensitivity Chichester John Wiley & Son Ltd 15-30
Gregory KJ & Downs PW 0 'The Sustainability of Restored Rivers: Catchment-Scale Perspectives on Long Term Response' River Restoration John Wiley & Sons, Ltd 251-286 , DOI
Conference Papers
Downs PW & Soar PJ 2018 'Determining the dynamics of coarse bedload transport using passive indirect monitoring: Time-dependent variability at event to inter-annual scales' River Flow 2018 - Ninth International Conference on Fluvial Hydraulics , DOI PEARL
Kondolf GM & Downs P 2004 'Learning from river restoration projects' 4335-4340
Kondolf GM & Downs PW 2001 'Post-project appraisals: The key to river restoration success' 573-584
Soar PJ, Thorne CR, Downs PW & Copeland RR 1998 'Geomorphic Engineering for River Restoration Design' Wetlands Engineering and River Restoration Conference 1998 American Society of Civil Engineers , DOI
Soar PJ, Thorne CR, Downs PW & Copeland RR 1998 'Geomorphic engineering for river restoration design'
Skinner KS, Downs PW & Brookes A 1998 'Geo-hydraulic Diversity Index (GDI) - A method for assessing the sustainability of rivers' 666-671
Downs PW, Skinner KS & Brookes A 1997 'Developing geomorphic Post Project Appraisals for environmentally-aligned river channel management' 430-435
Downs PW & Thorne CR 1997 'River rehabilitation measures for a lowland channel with flood defense requirements: River Idle, UK' 436-441
Other Publications