Environmental flows and the mitigation of hydrological alteration downstream from dams: The Spanish case

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González del Tánago, Marta
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Dams cause significant alteration in natural flow patterns of rivers throughout the world. As a response, many countries have established environmental flows (e-flows) to reduce hydrological alteration and mitigate ecosystem degradation. This paper assesses hydrological changes downstream from dams in 22 rivers in Spain, 12 of them located in northern wetter regions (Duero and Ebro basins) and the remaining 10 in southern drier regions (Guadalquivir and Júcar basins). First we compared pre-dam and post-dam instream flow patterns, and then we considered a third period starting with the implementation of e-flows. We quantified changes in mean annual flows, monthly flows, and magnitude and timing of extreme flows (1-day maximum, 95th percentile, 1-day minimum and 5th percentile). The analysis aimed at: i) characterizing hydrological alteration in regulated rivers in four river basins in Spain, with a special focus on differences across regions; and (ii) assessing the capacity of the implemented e-flows to mitigate flow regime alteration downstream from dams. All the studied rivers displayed significant changes in magnitude and timing of flows after the dam construction. A quite homogenous trend was observed in the drier basins, where mean annual flows and annual extreme flows decreased significantly. The wetter basins showed no uniform patterns in mean annual flows, while 1-day maximum and 95th percentile flow values decreased. In contrast to drier basins, 1-day minimum and 5th percentile flow values increased markedly. In most cases, the natural Mediterranean annual hydrograph was inverted, with the high-flow period occurring during the low precipitation months (summer) and the low-flow period during the wet season. After e-flows implementation, these patterns of hydrological alteration remained almost unchanged, pointing to a limited capacity of current e-flows to mitigate the hydrological impacts downstream from dams.
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