1. Reservoir creation and management can enhance many ecological services provided by freshwater ecosystems, but may alter the natural conditions to which aquatic biota have adapted. Benthic macroinvertebrates often reflect environmental conditions, and this community may be particularly susceptible to water-level changes that alter sediment exposure, temperature regime, wave-induced sediment redistribution and basal productivity.
2. Using a before–after control–impact experimental design, we assessed changes in macroinvertebrate community structure corresponding with changes in water-level management in two lentic systems in the Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota, U.S.A. Littoral zone (depths 1–5 m) benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages were sampled in Rainy Lake (control system) and Namakan Reservoir (impact system) in 1984–85, and again in 2004–05 following a change in water-level management that began in January 2000. The new regime reduced the magnitude of winter drawdown in Namakan Reservoir from 2.5 to 1.5 m, and allowed the reservoir to fill to capacity in late May, a month earlier than under the prior regime. Rainy Lake water levels were not altered substantially.
3. We found changes in macroinvertebrate community structure in Namakan Reservoir relative to Rainy Lake at 1–2 m depths but not at 3–5 m depths. These shallower depths would have been most directly affected by changes in sediment exposure and ice formation.
4. In 2004–05, Namakan Reservoir benthos showed lower overall abundance, more large-bodied taxa and an increase in non-insect invertebrates relative to 1984–85, without corresponding changes in Rainy Lake.
5. Changes in the benthic community in Namakan may reflect cooler water in spring and early summer as well as lower resource availability (both autochthonous production and allochthonous inputs) under the new regime.