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Restoring Environmental Flows by Modifying Dam Operations

Brian D. Richter, The Nature Conservancy
Gregory A. Thomas, Natural Heritage Institute


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The construction of new dams has become one of the most controversial issues in global efforts to alleviate poverty, improve human health, and strengthen regional economies. Unfortunately, this controversy has overshadowed the tremendous opportunity that exists for modifying the operations of existing dams to recover many of the environmental and social benefits of healthy ecosystems that have been compromised by present modes of dam operation. The potential benefits of dam “re-operation” include recovery of fish, shellfish, and other wildlife populations valued both commercially and recreationally, including estuarine species; reactivation of the flood storage and water purification benefits that occur when floods are allowed to flow into floodplain forests and wetlands; regaining some semblance of the naturally dynamic balance between river erosion and sedimentation that shapes physical habitat complexity, and arresting problems associated with geomorphic imbalances; cultural and spiritual uses of rivers; and many other socially valued products and services. This paper describes an assessment framework that can be used to evaluate the benefits that might be restored through dam re-operation. Assessing the potential benefits of dam re-operation begins by characterizing the dam’s effects on the river flow regime, and formulating hypotheses about the ecological and social benefits that might be restored by releasing water from the dam in a manner that more closely resembles natural flow patterns. These hypotheses can be tested by implementing a re-operation plan, tracking the response of the ecosystem, and continually refining dam operations through adaptive management. The paper highlights a number of land and water management strategies useful in implementing a dam re-operation plan, with reference to a variety of management contexts ranging from individual dams to cascades of dams along a river to regional energy grids. Because many of the suggested strategies for dam re-operation are predicated on changes in the end-use of the water, such as reductions in urban or agricultural water use during droughts, a systemic perspective of entire water management systems will be required to attain the fullest possible benefits of dam re-operations.

Key words

dams; dam re-operation; environmental flows; flood control dams; flow restoration; hydrologic alteration; hydropower dams; irrigation dams.

Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087