Small dams for hydropower have caused widespread alteration of Central American rivers, yet much of recent development has gone undocumented by scientists and conservationists. We examined the ecological effects of a small hydropower plant (Dona Julia Hydroelectric Center) on two low-order streams (the Puerto Viejo River and Quebradon stream) draining a mountainous area of Costa Rica. Operation of the Dona Julia plant has dewatered these streams, reducing discharge to ~ 10% of average annual flow. This study compared fish assemblage composition and aquatic habitat upstream and downstream of diversion dams on two streams and along a ~ 4 km dewatered reach of the Puerto Viejo River in an attempt to evaluate current instream flow recommendations for regulated Costa Rican streams. Our results indicated that fish assemblages directly upstream and downstream of the dam on the third order Puerto Viejo River were dissimilar, suggesting that the small dam (< 15 in high) hindered movement of fishes. Along the ~ 4 km dewatered reach of the Puerto Viejo River, species count increased with downstream distance from the dam. However, estimated species richness and overall fish abundance were not significantly correlated with downstream distance from the dam. Our results suggested that effects of stream dewatering may be most pronounced for a subset of species with more complex reproductive requirements, classified as equilibrium-type species based on their life-history. In the absence of changes to current operations, we expect that fish assemblages in the Puerto Viejo River will be increasingly dominated by opportunistic-type, colonizing fish species. Operations of many other small hydropower plants in Costa Rica and other parts of Central America mirror those of Doha Julia; the methods and results of this study may be applicable to some of those projects.
Additional publication details
Ecological consequences of hydropower development in Central America: Impacts of small dams and water diversion on neotropical stream fish assemblages