Environmental Engineering Reference
In-Depth Information
Understanding Ecosystem
Effects of Dams
Emily H. Stanley
University of Wisconsin, Madison
As with most environmental problems, understanding the effects of dams on rivers,
and how to manage these structures as they age, is a multifaceted challenge that moves
well beyond the traditional bounds of ecological research. My involvement with this
problem began with a strictly academic curiosity about how rivers and streams work.
In particular, I have had a long-standing interest in how nutrients are transported and
transformed as they move downstream, and saw dam removal as an opportunity to gain
some new insights into this question. But this path led me into far broader environmental
issues that included the practical challenges of dealing with dams that are getting old
and literally falling apart, environmental policy debates, and the reactions of individuals
and communities faced with the prospect of removing a dam from a river. In the end, the
complexities of dam removal provided me with a remarkable experience that updated
my personal definition of ecosystem science.
When I arrived in Wisconsin in 1998, I learned about a plan to remove a series of dams
from the Baraboo River, a mid-sized river that travels through farmlands and a series of
small towns and cities before flowing into the Wisconsin River. One dam had recently been
removed, and the remaining three structures were to be taken out over the next three to five
years. At the time, my research interests were being influenced by the nutrient spiraling
concept ( Webster and Patten 1979; Newbold et al. 1981 ; Box 5.2), which was the focus of
enormous research in stream ecology at the time (e.g., LINX), as well as my graduate work
in Sycamore Creek, Arizona. As a desert stream, ecological dynamics of Sycamore Creek are
strongly affected by disturbances in the form of flash floods and drying (and later, we were
to learn, also by the presence of cattle; see Fisher et al. 1982; Stanley et al. 1997; Heffernan
2008 ). As a recent arrival at University of Wisconsin and an “academic grandchild” of Gene
Likens, I also had a strong appreciation for the power of whole-ecosystem experiments.
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