How dam operators can breathe more life into rivers

Folsom Dam and lake full of water. Photo by Paul Harnes, California Department of Water Resources

Folsom Dam and lake full of water. Photo by Paul Harnes, California Department of Water Resources

By Sarah Yarnell

Dams are no friend to biodiversity. Once impounded, a river answers first and foremost to human needs, be it water supply, energy production or flood protection. Releases are measured and timed to satisfy these demands.

As a result, the river downstream loses much of its natural variability in timing, volume and spread of flows. Dams also block passage of sediment that scours the stream channel and deposits fresh cobble bars. These activities create and maintain habitats for multiple species, contributing to biodiversity.

But dams don’t have to be death knells of biodiversity. Operators can manipulate flows in ways that restore some of their ecological functions that promote diverse riverine animal, plant and fish communities.

Releasing flows for environmental purposes is not new. California has long required dam owners to release enough flow “at all times” to keep fish “in good condition.” Further, some water and power suppliers are required under the federal Endangered Species Act to release flows at biologically important times for imperiled native fish.

These “environmental flows,” as water managers call them, may help fish survive, but they do not necessarily create habitat that promote high biodiversity. For that you need to implement a suite of well-timed flow patterns that move sediment and can access floodplains and over-bank areas.

My research colleagues and I recently identified five types of flows that are key to creating multiple habitats. We presented them recently at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. [Update: On Aug. 5, 2015, Bioscience published the author’s paper describing in detail the functional-flows approach to managing heavily modified rivers. You can download the journal article here.]

We call these “functional flows,” as distinct from fish-saving “environmental” ones, because they provide certain geomorphic, ecological or biochemical functions that support breeding, migration, habitat diversity and, ultimately, biodiversity.

We build on a term originally coined by Escobar-Arias & Pasternack in 2010 and define a functional flow as a component of the hydrograph that provides a distinct geomorphic, ecological or biogeochemical function. Physical processes and biotic interactions in rivers operate in three dimensions—longitudinally, laterally and vertically—and are intimately tied to the timing, duration and frequency of natural flows, so functional flows must also be reflective of the natural patterns that occur in both space and time. We illustrate the approach in med-montane systems with a distinct high and low flow seasonality, such as mixed rain-snow Sierra hydrograph shown here. These systems are highly sensitive to hydrological change, exhibiting relatively short relaxation times to flow regulation. A functional flows approach would retain particular components of the hydrograph that provide ecogeomorphic functions. Here we emphasize 5 flow components that should be retained.

This hydrograph shows the typical natural and “functional flow” patterns of  rivers in the Sierra Nevada and five components that provide distinct geomorphic, ecological or biogeochemical functions that help create and maintain habitat for multiple native species. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Five functional flow patterns key to creating and maintaining habitat for multiple species:

1.  Wet season initiation flow

  • Clears riverbed of organics, fine sediment
  • Reconnects stream with riparian and over-bank areas
  • Kick starts nutrient cycling
  • Provides ecological cues for native species such as the delta smelt to migrate upstream

In many river systems, these actions can be accomplished simply by letting the first major, sediment-loaded storm runoff of the season – known as the “first flush” – pass through dams.

2.  Peak flow

Flooded oaks on Cosumnes River. Photo: UC Davis

Flooded oaks on the Cosumnes River south of Sacramento. Photo: UC Davis

  • Timed to coincide with the natural season of high flows and floods, ideally during big storms and other correlative weather conditions that native fish may respond to
  • Should last long enough to scour out pools, form channel bars, activate floodplains and otherwise create diverse habitat
  • Redistributes large amounts of sediment, creating geomorphic diversity
  • Reduces extent of exotic species that are not adapted to these disturbances
  • Keeps vegetation from encroaching on stream channels
  • Resets the natural process of ecological succession

Water spilled from flooded reservoirs also is good for moving sediment. But these events happen only once every five to ten years. The annual peak flow helps maintain the form and structure of river channels, however these flows are often captured behind dams rather than passed downstream.

The free-flowing nature of the Cosumnes River allows frequent and regular winter and spring flooding that fosters growth of native vegetation and wildlife.

The free-flowing Cosumnes River south of Sacramento regularly floods during the wet season, promoting growth of native fish. UC Davis researchers Carson Jeffres (left) and Eric Holmes capture, measure and identified fish that took advantage of the flooding in December 2012. Photo: UC Davis

3.  Spring recession flow


California’s rare foothill yellow-legged frog breeds only in rivers and streams and lays its eggs in clusters that attach to submerged rocks. Photo by Ryan Peek, UC Davis

  • Timed to coincide with the springtime transition between high and low flows
  • Mimics the natural rate of decline in snowmelt flows, which is gradual
  • Provides distinct annual cues for native aquatic species to reproduce and out-migrate
  • Should last long enough to sustain habitats that species need to successfully reproduce and to redistribute sediment throughout the stream

As dam operators in the Sierra Nevada fill reservoirs, river levels can drop sharply, from the peak spring flows spilling over dams to the low, flat-lined summer flows. Gradually ramping down the spill flows can provide the in-stream conditions needed for survival of native species, such as the rare foothill yellow-legged frog, whose submerged eggs could get stranded and left to bake in the sun.

4.  Dry season low flow

  • Timed to occur during the warmest and driest part of the year (typically September in California)
  • Should be low enough to disconnect the stream from its floodplains, to create a variety of ecological niches that promote a medley of riparian plants and trees
  • Should maintain the natural ephemeral or perennial conditions

Releasing artificially high base flows often benefits non-native species that are not adapted to the biologically stressful low-flow periods.

5.  Inter-annual flow variability

  • Mimics the natural variability between years in magnitude, timing and duration of specific flow events
  • Supports diversity in habitat and native species over the long term

Bigger, longer floods should be planned for years when water is plentiful, while smaller, shorter peak flows should occur in drier years.

Dam operators need to bring greater sophistication into the design and implementation of flows for multiple uses, including ecosystem services, water supply and flood control.

To maximize the limited allocations of water for ecosystem purposes, the focus of discussions should shift from flow volume to “functional flows” that support natural disturbances, promote certain physical dynamics and drive ecosystem functions.

When geomorphology and sediment processes are considered with flow magnitude, timing and duration, the creation and maintenance of habitats for multiple species can be sustained, and biodiversity is supported. A functional flows approach provides the best opportunity to encompass these ecosystem processes alongside human needs.

Sarah Yarnell is a senior researcher with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. 

Further reading

Arthington AH. 2012. “Environmental flows: Saving rivers in the third millennium.” University of California Press

Beechie TJ, Sear DA, Olden JD, Pess GR, Buffington JM, Moir H, Roni P, Pollock MM. 2010. “Process-based principles for restoring river ecosystems.” Bioscience 60:209-222

Escobar-Arias, M. I. and G. B. Pasternack (2010). “A hydrogeomorphic dynamics approach to assess in-stream ecological functionality using the functional flows model, Part 1- Model Characteristics.” River Research and Applications 26(9): 1103-1128

Greco SE, Larsen EW. 2014. “Ecological design of multifunctional open channels for flood control and conservation planning.” Landscape and Urban Planning 131:14-26

Kiernan JD, Moyle PB, Crain PK. 2012. “Restoring native fish assemblages to a regulated California stream using the natural flow regime concept.” Ecological Applications 22:1472-1482

Lund JR, Moyle PB. “Is shorting fish of water during drought good for water users?California WaterBlog, June 3, 2014

Moyle PB, Mount JF. 2007. “Homogenous rivers, homogenous faunas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104:5711-5712

Petts GE. 1996. “Water allocation to protect river ecosystem.” Regulated Rivers-Research & Management 12:353-365

Suddeth, Robyn. “Reconciling fish and fowl with farms and flooding.” California WaterBlog. Dec. 2, 2014

Wohl E. 2012. “Identifying and mitigating dam-induced declines in river health: Three case studies from the western United States.” International Journal of Sediment Research 27:271-287

Yarnell SM, Petts G, Schmidt J, Whipple A, Beller E, Dahm C, Goodwin P, Viers JH.  2015. “Functional Flows in Modified Riverscapes: Hydrographs, Habitats and Opportunities.” BioScience. 65(9)

Yarnell, Sarah. “Life springs in Sierra rivers and springtime flows recede.” California WaterBlog, May 4, 2013

Yarnell, Sarah. “Sierra frogs breed insights on river management.” California WaterBlog, Oct. 3, 2012

Yarnell SM, Viers JH, Mount JF. 2010. “Ecology and management of the spring snowmelt recession.” Bioscience 60:114-127

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4 Responses to How dam operators can breathe more life into rivers

  1. gymnosperm says:

    Maybe the hardest thing is maintaining low summer flows. They run counter to the electric, agricultural and recreational demands. I’m both a white water boater and a fisherman and have seen the impact of the diurnal flow variation during summer on the west slope rivers. Not good, but few options.

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