Homogenization of regional river dynamics by dams and global biodiversity implications

LeRoy POFF, J.D. Olden, D.M. Merritt, D.M. Pepin

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    Global biodiversity in river and riparian ecosystems is generated and maintained by geographic variation in stream processes and fluvial disturbance regimes, which largely reflect regional differences in climate and geology. Extensive construction of dams by humans has greatly dampened the seasonal and interannual streamflow variability of rivers, thereby altering natural dynamics in ecologically important flows on continental to global scales. The cumulative effects of modification to regional-scale environmental templates caused by dams is largely unexplored but of critical conservation importance. Here, we use 186 long-term streamflow records on intermediate-sized rivers across the continental United States to show that dams have homogenized the flow regimes on third- through seventh-order rivers in 16 historically distinctive hydrologic regions over the course of the 20th century. This regional homogenization occurs chiefly through modification of the magnitude and timing of ecologically critical high and low flows. For 317 undammed reference rivers, no evidence for homogenization was found, despite documented changes in regional precipitation over this period. With an estimated average density of one dam every 48 km of third- through seventh-order river channel in the United States, dams arguably have a continental scale effect of homogenizing regionally distinct environmental templates, thereby creating conditions that favor the spread of cosmopolitan, nonindigenous species at the expense of locally adapted native biota. Quantitative analyses such as ours provide the basis for conservation and management actions aimed at restoring and maintaining native biodiversity and ecosystem function and resilience for regionally distinct ecosystems at continental to global scales.
    Original languageUndefined
    Pages (from-to)5732-5737
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Issue number14
    Publication statusPublished - 2007

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