Dams and Rivers: A Primer on the Downstream Effects of Dams

Circular 1126

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The U.S. Geological Survey is charged with monitoring the water and mineral resources of the United States. Beginning in 1889, the Survey established a network of water gaging stations across most of the country's rivers; some also measured sediment content of the water. Consequently, we now have valuable long-term data with which to track water supply, sediment transport, and the occurrence of floods. Many variables affect the flow of water from mountain brook to river delta. Some are short-term perturbations like summer thunderstorms. Others occur over a longer period of time, like the El Ninos that might be separated by a decade or more. We think of these variables as natural occurrences, but humans have exerted some of the most important changes -- water withdrawals for agriculture, inter-basin transfers, and especially the construction of an extensive system of dams. Dams have altered the flow of many of the Nation's rivers to meet societal needs. We expect floods to be contained. Irrigation is possible where deserts once existed. And water is released downstream not according to natural cycles but as dictated by a region's hour-by-hour needs for water or electricity. As a result, river channels below dams have changed dramatically. Depending on annual flow, flood peaks, and a river's sediment load, we might see changes such as sand building up in one channel, vegetation crowding into another, and extensive bank erosion in another. This Circular explores the emerging scientific arena of change in rivers below dams. This science tries first to understand and then anticipate changes to river beds and banks, and to riparian habitats and animal communities. To some degree, these downstream changes can be influenced by specific strategies of dam management. Scientists and resource managers have a duty to assemble this information and present it without bias to the rest of society. Society can then more intelligently choose a balance between the benefits and adverse downstream effects of dams.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Dams and Rivers: A Primer on the Downstream Effects of Dams
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Revised 2000
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
U.S. Geological Survey
viii, 94 p.