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Overcoming Information Limitations for the Prescription of an Environmental Flow Regime for a Central American River

Peter C Esselman, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University
Jeffrey J Opperman, The Nature Conservancy

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Abstract

Hydropower dam construction is expanding rapidly in Central America because of the increasing demand for electricity. Although hydropower can provide a low-carbon source of energy, dams can also degrade socially valued riverine and riparian ecosystems and the services they provide. Such degradation can be partially mitigated by the release of environmental flows below dams. However, environmental flows have been applied infrequently to dams in Central America, partly because of the lack of information on the ecological, social, and economic aspects of rivers. This paper presents a case study of how resource and information limitations were addressed in the development of environmental flow recommendations for the Patuca River in Honduras below a proposed hydroelectric dam. To develop flow recommendations, we applied a multistep process that included hydrological analysis and modeling, the collection of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) during field trips, expert consultation, and environmental flow workshops for scientists, water managers, and community members. The final environmental flow recommendation specifies flow ranges for different components of river hydrology, including low flows for each month, high-flow pulses, and floods, in dry, normal, and wet years. The TEK collected from local and indigenous riverine communities was particularly important for forming hypotheses about flow-dependent ecological and social factors that may be vulnerable to disruption from dam-modified river flows. We show that our recommended environmental flows would have a minimal impact on the damís potential to generate electricity. In light of rapid hydropower development in Central America, we suggest that environmental flows are important at the local scale, but that an integrated landscape perspective is ultimately needed to pursue hydropower development in a manner that is as ecologically sustainable as possible.

Key words

dams; environmental flows; fish assemblage; Honduras; hydrology; traditional ecological knowledge; tropics
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087