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Mitigating the ecological effects of water storage pressures

March 29, 2017

Water outflows from Fewston Reservoir, UK. Image: James Whitesmith | Flickr Creative Commons

Human alterations to the physical characteristics of water bodies – their shape, course, bed and banks – are common across Europe. Such ‘hydromorphological’ alterations may be the result of flood protection needs, navigation, urban development, abstraction demands or water storage.

Hydromorphological alterations due to water storage – for example, hydroelectricity generation, agricultural irrigation and public water supplies – are particularly widespread, and many of the affected water bodies have been designated as ‘heavily modified‘ by the Water Framework Directive (WFD). As a result, effective management and mitigation strategies are clearly needed to improve the ecological health and status of affected water bodies.

Since 2013, the ECOSTAT project  – an European Commission Working Group for the implementation of the WFD – has been researching the effectiveness of mitigation measures for the effects of water storage on water bodies in 23 European countries. ECOSTAT recently published a report on this research, based on engagements with stakeholders across Europe. Framed as a ‘knowledge exchange’ tool for water managers, the report highlights how mitigation measures for water storage across Europe are commonly focused on maintaining minimum ‘environmental flows’ along river courses, particularly of water and migratory fish.

Their report centres on the idea of ‘good ecological potential‘ in heavily modified water bodies. EU member states are required to undertake management to guide most of their water bodies towards ‘good ecological status’, which is measured by a range of biological and chemical indicators. However, heavily modified water bodies (for example, a hydropower dam on a river) are instead required to be managed towards ‘good ecological potential’.

In effect, this is a measure of progress towards a lowered baseline of ecological status, which is limited by human modifications. Implicit in the measure of ‘good ecological potential’ is an awareness that highly modified water bodies are unlikely to ever reach the ecological status of their less modified equivalents, and so the task for water managers is to improve their status as far as possible, given the multiple pressures they face.

The recent ECOSTAT report compared the effectiveness of mitigation measures for water storage pressures across Europe in achieving good ecological potential. Mitigation measures – for example, maintenance of water flows and temperature below a dam, or the installation of fish passes – are aimed to improve the ecological potential of heavily modified water bodies. However, there is a need across Europe for managers to share information on ‘what works’ when implementing mitigation measures under multiple pressures.


Lake Plastiras (or Tavropos Reservoir) in Greece, an artificial water body created for irrigation and drinking water supplies, and hydropower. Image: Ava Babili | Flickr Creative Commons

Water storage in reservoirs, dams and canals for water supply, power generation, irrigation and recreation can have a number of harmful ecological effects. Flows of water, nutrients and sediments are often altered, and migration routes and breeding grounds for aquatic animals such as salmon are cut off. Habitats are often altered, both upstream and downstream of water storage constructions, potentially altering erosion dynamics and water temperature, depth and oxygen levels. A range of common measures – largely targeted at maintaining or restoring environmental flows – are outlined in the report.

Connectivity of fish migration routes

The free passage of migratory fish is a key requirement of the WFD, and may be used as an indicator for assessing whether water bodies are meeting good ecological potential or status. As a result, ensuring connectivity in migration routes was a key priority for most countries, with in-channel fish passes and bypass channels (which circumvent small obstructions) the most common measures.

Bypass channels are reported as being most effective at helping migratory species navigate small dams and weirs. Both bypass channels and in-channel fish passes require ongoing maintenance, and a wider conservation of habitats involved in other life stages (e.g. spawning) to be successful. In hydropower plants, the installation of ‘fish friendly’ turbines which have fewer blades and slower rotation speeds may increase the downstream migration success rate for some fish species. The most common reason for not implementing such measures is due to high costs and technological requirements.

Flow alterations

Water flows play a key part in shaping the physical and ecological characteristics of a water body, and as such its sustainability and productivity. As with connectivity, the WFD explicitly acknowledges the importance of the flow regime for the status of aquatic ecosystems and includes it as one of the key quality elements supporting biological elements in the classification of ecological status.

Most European counties implement mitigation measures for flow alterations, although these vary depending on geography and human pressures. Where low flows are a problem, measures may include increasing flows from dam outflows, reducing abstraction rates and altering river morphology to maximise habitat availability under low flows. Where rapidly changing flows (for example, from ‘hydropeaks’) are the issue, dam outflows may be regulated or rerouted, and river morphology may be altered to provide refuge habitats for variable flows, in order to minimise the effects on downstream ecosystems. As with connectivity, technical challenges and high installation costs were commonly cited as reasons not to implement such measures.

Sediment alterations

Closely tied to hydrological flows, sediment transport plays a fundamental role in determining and maintaining river channel morphology and ecosystem habitats. Water storage reservoirs can fundamentally alter sediment dynamics: causing upstream deposition where flows are low, and downstream erosion and transport where flows are higher, and/or more variable.

A focus on mitigating sediment alteration is less of a priority in European countries than for connectivity and water flows. Where practiced, the two most effective techniques are reported to be mobilising flows and restoring lateral erosion processes. Where the first measure is dependent on managing water flows, the second is practiced largely where river banks have been reinforced with rock or concrete. Lateral erosion measures aim to remove such fortifications to allow natural erosion processes to return along the river’s banks, thus increasing sediment supply to areas where there is presently little, due to such modifications.


Solbergfoss Hydroelectric Power Station on the River Glomma in Norway. Image: Astrid Westvang | Flickr Creative Commons

Impounded rivers

Dams and weirs create stretches of ‘impounded’ flows on rivers, where upstream flows are often reduced, water depth increased, and sediment deposition increased. Impounded flows may extend out over former flood plains. Some rivers may alternate between impounded and free-flowing stretches, creating a fragmented course, often with low connectivity between habitats. Impounded areas may be at increased risk of stagnation and eutrophication linked to water pollution.

Measures to mitigate the impacts of impoundments are not yet widespread in Europe, according to the ECOSTAT report. Where practiced, the measures with highest ecological impact are the restoration of tributary and floodplain features in impounded stretches, in order to encourage a more ‘natural’ flow regime; the reduction of water storage levels above a dam or weir; and the construction of free-flowing channels which bypass the impoundments, in order to create appropriate aquatic habitats. Following inputs from water managers across Europe, improvements to impounded channel habitats and reconnecting tributaries and floodplain features are the most realistic measures for implementation.

Lake level alterations

Large dams with reservoirs may be built for multiple water uses including hydropower, water supply (e.g. drinking water), flood protection and water regulation. Depending on the different requirements of these uses, the water level in reservoirs can vary over time and use. For example, for flood protection water levels are relatively high during wet periods and lower during dry periods. For hydropower use, rapidly changing energy production (hydropeaking), can cause high water level fluctuations, particularly in smaller reservoirs. Such fluctuations can cause widespread ecological stress, particularly to the communities of plants, fish (often juveniles) and insects which live in shallow lake margins, and may find their habitat periodically flooded or dried out.

Most of the European countries reporting to the ECOSTAT study implement measures to mitigate the effects of lake level fluctuations. These include better management of abstraction rates and timing, and ensuring lakes are properly connected to tributaries, to allow mobile species to migrate to suitable habitats when lake levels fluctuate. Both measures are ranked as having high ecological and practical effectiveness by the contributing water managers. However, reductions to abstraction may be difficult to achieve given the high economic value (e.g. hydropower, agriculture) of the abstracted water.


An overflow ‘plughole’ on Ladybower Reservoir, UK. Image: Sue Langford | Flickr Creative Commons

Physical and chemical alterations

Large dams and weirs can alter water temperature, nutrient concentrations and patterns of winter ice formation, both upstream and downstream, through the alterations to hydrological regimes outlined above. These impacts can reduce habitat quality and spawning success for many aquatic species, particularly fish.

Of these impacts, mitigation measures for water temperature alterations are most common, and were reported by around half of the ECOSTAT stakeholders. Flexible and multiple intakes of water, which allow for the controlled intake of water from different depths (and thus, temperature) from a reservoir to a downstream river, are the key implemented measure. However, at present, there is too little practical experience to give a clear indication of the ecological effectiveness of such measures.


The report helpfully brings together information on the use and effectiveness of mitigation measures for water storage pressures across Europe. However, there were variations in the scale at which measures were applied on rivers and lakes (e.g. 100m to 10km on rivers), which limited direct comparisons between sites. Similarly, there were variations in how ‘good ecological potential’ was calculated in different countries, reflecting its highly site- and pressure- specific nature as a metric. As a result, the report advocates more harmonisation in calculation techniques.

More broadly, the maintenance of regular and interconnected water flows is a key theme in all the pressures explored above. Free-flowing rivers allow species to migrate, regulate temperatures, foster natural sediment dynamics, and create diverse habitats. The challenge, as highlighted by this report, is to attempt to simulate and restore such conditions, even when faced with the multiple pressures (and challenges) present in heavily modified water bodies.

Halleraker et al, (2016) Working Group ECOSTAT report on common understanding of using mitigation measures for reaching Good Ecological Potential for heavily modified water bodies – Part 1: Impacted by water storage; EUR 28413; doi: 10.2760/649695

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