Are large-scale flow experiments informing the science and management of freshwater ecosystems?



Greater scientific knowledge, changing societal values, and legislative mandates have emphasized the importance of implementing large-scale flow experiments (FEs) downstream of dams. We provide the first global assessment of FEs to evaluate their success in advancing science and informing management decisions. Systematic review of 113 FEs across 20 countries revealed that clear articulation of experimental objectives, while not universally practiced, was crucial for achieving management outcomes and changing dam-operating policies. Furthermore, changes to dam operations were three times less likely when FEs were conducted primarily for scientific purposes. Despite the recognized importance of riverine flow regimes, four-fifths of FEs involved only discrete flow events. Over three-quarters of FEs documented both abiotic and biotic outcomes, but only one-third examined multiple taxonomic responses, thus limiting how FE results can inform holistic dam management. Future FEs will present new opportunities to advance scientifically credible water policies.