Sustainable dams—are they possible? Expert weighs in

December 11, 2017 by Anne Manning, Colorado State University
Credit: Colorado State University

Humans have been altering natural waterways for centuries, but only in the last several decades have dams raised ecological concerns.

N. LeRoy Poff, professor of biology at Colorado State University, studies the to rivers from human-caused changes, such as dam building, and how these modified river systems can be managed for resilience.

In a Dec. 8 Perspective piece in the journal Science, Poff, an expert in hydroecology and determining environmental flow needs for rivers, writes on the state of research in sustainable dam design. He highlights a new tool that researchers at Arizona State University are proposing for engineering river flows in Southeast Asia in order to sustain the economically and culturally important natural floodplain fisheries of the region.

"As a researcher, I am concerned about biodiversity conservation, and about sustaining rivers at a level of functional integrity that enables them to provide both biodiversity support as well as ecosystem goods and services," said Poff, who also holds a partial appointment in riverine science at Australia's University of Canberra. "I'm interested in where those intersect."

Writing with co-author Julian Olden of the University of Washington, Poff cites a new study that could provide innovative solutions to preserving river flow in the Mekong basin of Southeast Asia, where several new dams are being proposed. The ASU researchers report a spectral analysis tool that identifies dominant signals in hydrology time series. These signals predict the fisheries' production from year to year, opening possibilities to new flow management strategies.

Poff and Olden contend that balancing economic, social and ecological needs as dams come online in developing countries requires technological solutions like the ones described by the ASU researchers.

"Ultimately, managing rivers for multiple, sustainable benefits requires integrating scientific, social and policy perspectives into operational decision frameworks," the authors write.

Poff, who has also done extensive river work in the state of Colorado, adds that balancing water for society and ecosystems continues to be one of the state's biggest challenges. Techniques like the one described in Science may help improve health and sustainability for river ecosystems in Colorado, the U.S. and throughout the developing world.

Explore further: Dammed if you do: Scientists recommend strategies to lessen dams' environmental impacts

More information: N. LeRoy Poff et al, Can dams be designed for sustainability?, Science (2017). DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq1422

Related Stories

Better dam planning strategies

January 7, 2015

When dams are built they have an impact not only on the flow of water in the river, but also on the people who live downstream and on the surrounding ecosystems. By placing data from close to 6,500 existing large dams on ...

Recommended for you

Antarctic ice shelf 'sings' as winds whip across its surface

October 16, 2018

Winds blowing across snow dunes on Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf cause the massive ice slab's surface to vibrate, producing a near-constant set of seismic "tones" scientists could potentially use to monitor changes in the ice ...

New understanding of Mekong River incision

October 16, 2018

An international team of earth scientists has linked the establishment of the Mekong River to a period of major intensification of the Asian monsoon during the middle Miocene, about 17 million years ago, findings that supplant ...

World Heritage sites threatened by sea level rise

October 16, 2018

From Venice and the tower of Pisa to the medieval city of Rhodes, dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Mediterranean basin are deeply threatened by rising sea levels, researchers warned Tuesday.

Was life on the early Earth purple?

October 16, 2018

Early life forms on Earth may have been able to generate metabolic energy from sunlight using a purple-pigmented molecule called retinal that possibly predates the evolution of chlorophyll and photosynthesis. If retinal has ...

New interactive scenario explorer for 1.5 degrees C pathways

October 16, 2018

IIASA and the Integrated Assessment Modeling Consortium (IAMC) have made the scenarios underlying last week's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C Special Report publicly available in an interactive online ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.