Dams and downstream aquatic biodiversity: Potential food web consequences of hydrologic and geomorphic change

Mary E. Power, William E. Dietrich, Jacques C. Finlay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

267 Scopus citations


Responses of rivers and river ecosystems to dams are complex and varied, as they depend on local sediment supplies, geomorphic constraints, climate, dam structure and operation, and key attributes of the biota. Therefore, 'one-size fits-all' prescriptions cannot substitute for local knowledge in developing prescriptions for dam structure and operation to protect local biodiversity. One general principle is self-evident: that biodiversity is best protected in rivers where physical regimes are the most natural. A sufficiently natural regime of flow variation is particularly crucial for river biota and food webs. We review our research and that of others to illustrate the ecological importance of alternating periods of low and high flow, of periodic bed scour, and of floodplain inundation and dewatering. These fluctuations regulate both the life cycles of river biota and species interactions in the food webs that sustain them. Even if the focus of biodiversity conservation efforts is on a target species rather than whole ecosystems, a food web perspective is necessary, because populations of any species depend critically on how their resources, prey, and potential predators also respond to environmental change. In regulated rivers, managers must determine how the frequency, magnitude, and timing of hydrologic events interact to constrain or support species and food webs. Simple ecological modeling, tailored to local systems, may provide a framework and some insight into explaining ecosystem response to dams and should give direction to mitigation efforts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)887-895
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental management
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 1996


  • Dams
  • Food webs
  • Hydrologic disturbance
  • Predator-prey dynamics
  • Succession


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