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Patterns and drivers of water quality changes associated with dams in the Tropical Andes




hydropower, andes, colombia, water quality, monitoring


The Tropical Andes is a biodiversity hotspot facing pressure from planned and ongoing hydropower development. However, the effects of dams on river ecosystems of the region as mediated by physico-chemical changes to water quality are poorly known. Colombia is unique among its peers in South America for managing central public environmental databases, including surface water quality data sets associated with environmental monitoring of dams. To assess the relationship between hydropower and Colombian river conditions, we analyze monitoring data associated with 15 dams, focusing on oxygen availability, thermal regimes and sediment losses because these properties are influenced directly by river damming and impose fundamental constraints on the structure of downstream aquatic ecosystems. We find that most Colombian dams (7 of 10) seasonally reduce concentrations of total suspended solids by large percentages (50-99%) through sediment trapping. Most dams (8 of 15) also, via discharge of warm reservoir surface waters, seasonally increase river temperatures by 2 to 4˚C with respect to upstream conditions. A subset of four dams generates downstream hypoxia (<4 mg L-1) and water 2 to 5˚C colder than inflows—both processes driven by the turbination and discharge of cold and anoxic hypolimnetic waters during periods of reservoir stratification. Reliance on monitoring data likely leads us to under-detect impacts because many rivers are only sampled once or twice per year and cannot capture temporal shifts across seasons and days (i.e., in response to hydropeaking). Despite these blind spots, the monitoring data point to some opportunities for planners and hydropower companies to mitigate downstream ecological impacts. These findings highlight the importance of implementing environmental monitoring schemes associated with hydrologic infrastructure in developing countries.


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How to Cite

Winton, R. S., López-Casas, S., Valencia-Rodríguez, D., Bernal-Forero, C., Delgado, J., Wehrli, B., & Jiménez-Segura, L. (2023). Patterns and drivers of water quality changes associated with dams in the Tropical Andes . In SciELO Preprints.


Exact and Earth Sciences