Dam nation: A geographic census of American dams and their large-scale hydrologic impacts

Authors

  • William L. Graf


Abstract

Newly available data indicate that dams fragment the fluvial system of the continental United States and that their impact on river discharge is several times greater than impacts deemed likely as a result of global climate change. The 75,000 dams in the continental United States are capable of storing a volume of water almost equaling one year's mean runoff, but there is considerable geographic variation in potential surface water impacts. In some western mountain and plains regions, dams can store more than 3 year's runoff, while in the Northeast and Northwest, storage is as little as 25% of the annual runoff. Dams partition watersheds; the drainage area per dam varies from 44 km2 (17 miles2) per dam in New England to 811 km2 (313 miles2) per dam in the Lower Colorado basin. Storage volumes, indicators of general hydrologic effects of dams, range from 26,200 m3 km−2 (55 acre-feet mile−2) in the Great Basin to 345,000 m3 km−2 (725 acre-feet mile−2) in the South Atlantic region. The greatest river flow impacts occur in the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and the arid Southwest, where storage is up to 3.8 times the mean annual runoff. The nation's dams store 5000 m3 (4 acre-feet) of water per person. Water resource regions have experienced individualized histories of cumulative increases in reservoir storage (and thus of downstream hydrologic and ecologic impacts), but the most rapid increases in storage occurred between the late 1950s and the late 1970s. Since 1980, increases in storage have been relatively minor.

Ancillary

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