Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability logo

We've got a new name! Read the announcement. (A new website is under development.)

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
March 2019

Managing Rivers Under Changing Environmental and Societal Boundary Conditions, Part 1: National Trends and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Reservoirs

Managing Rivers Under Changing Environmental and Societal Boundary Conditions, Part 1: National Trends and u.s. Army Corps of Engineers Reservoirs

Most major rivers in the United States are managed by a system of reservoirs; many of which were built more than a half century ago. These reservoirs were designed based on environmental, societal, and regulatory assumptions at the time of construction. Since then, we have learned that climate is not stationary, population growth is being decoupled from energy needs and water demand, and new regulations (such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act) affect how river systems are managed. This study explores changing environmental, societal, and regulatory conditions relevant to the design and operation of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs across the conterminous United States. Results demonstrate large geographic variability in how these conditions have changed over time. In the south‐western United States, there is an amplified trend towards drier conditions and less reservoir flexibility with warmer temperatures, less precipitation, high sedimentation rates, and large population growth. In the north‐eastern United States, the impacts of increased temperature on reservoirs may be masked by greater precipitation and lower water demand. Environmental, societal, and regulatory changes can reduce the flexibility of reservoir operations and, in some instances, make it challenging for the reservoir to meet its intended purpose as designed decades ago. This study is the first step towards formalizing a process for monitoring broad trends relevant to water resources management for the purpose of moving towards adaptation of infrastructure. An interactive tool was developed for each condition:

See the Reservoir Series for related publications and interactive tools.