Reducing Hydropower Production On Weekends Could Improve River Health

Sep 27, 2016

Straddling the Continental Divide at over ten thousand feet, the Colorado River begins as a trickle.  It gains tremendous power as it moves along its course, carving out formations like the Grand Canyon on its trek to the sea.  This river is among the largest in the southwest, and has become an emblem of wildness.

However, this force of nature has been tamed and altered by a series of dams, including the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams.  These dams were constructed to provide flood control and water security for thirsty cities in its watershed, like Las Vegas.  Dams also provide hydroelectric power, seen by some as a “green” energy source.

“We transform some section of river from river to an artificial lake," said Dr. Jack Schmidt, a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University. "Ecosystems change. Those changes typically adversely affect the native species in the river, and alongside of the river, that evolved in the natural flux of water flow.”

A recent study highlighted by Dr. Schmidt in Science Perspectives suggests that giving aquatic insects a break from the altered flows caused by the dam might improve the entire food web in the Grand Canyon.

“If the production of electricity is reduced at certain days, and it was suggested that the days that it be reduced are Saturday and Sunday, when electricity demand is least, that we might actually provide the insect communities with a couple days of rest, so that we might actually boost the food productivity of these river systems,” said Schmidt. 

While researchers are trying to improve the ecology between the dams, the Colorado River flows into the Gulf of California much as it began: a mere trickle.