Artificial Reservoirs: Land Cover Change on Local Climate

Authored by: Faisal Hossain , Ahmed M. Degu

Fresh Water and Watersheds

Print publication date:  June  2020
Online publication date:  May  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138337565
eBook ISBN: 9780429441042
Adobe ISBN:

10.1201/9780429441042-4

 

Abstract

This entry presents a review of what is currently known regarding the potential impact of large artificial reservoirs and dams on the local climate from the paradigm of land use and land cover (LULC) change. The review is based on the premise of systematic change in climate-sensitive LULC that most dams initiate after their construction and operation. To better understand the implication of change in local climate near dams and artificial reservoirs, it is, therefore, important to have a broader view of the changes to the landscape in the post-dam era. However, in the future, other factors, such as urbanization, atmospheric aerosols, and global warming, need to be explored as well.

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Artificial Reservoirs: Land Cover Change on Local Climate

Introduction

Understanding the terrestrial water cycle is important for any study that concerns future water availability. The dynamic nature of the Earth’s water cycle means that the water that is available naturally in various forms (precipitation, stream flow, ground water, snow etc.) is highly variable in both space and time. Consequently, this means that the supply of water that is available for harnessing directly from nature does not always meet the rising demand to sustain our human civilization (for energy, food, water supply needs). Historically, therefore, one of the common engineering solutions to guarantee a more steady water supply against such rising demands has been to construct surface water impoundments on rivers. Such large-scale infrastructures are commonly known as dams and artificial reservoirs. These structures trap a sufficiently large amount of water from the local water cycle to make up for a shortfall when demand exceeds the variable supply from nature.

Recently published research on sustainable development stresses the need to improve our understanding of how the extremes of climate and water availability are changing. Of the many important factors, land use and land cover (LULC) change represents a major human-induced activity critical to extremes of water cycle and fresh water availability. 1–31 One example of human-induced LULC change is the construction of engineering facilities for irrigation, hydroelectric power generation, industrial and domestic water supply once a large dam is built nearby. In particular, irrigation is one of the more pervasive drivers of change in the water cycle. During the last century, irrigable land increased from 40 million hectares (Mha) to 215 Mha.[ 4 ] About 40% of the current irrigable land is supplied with surface water that is impounded by large artificial reservoirs and dams built on rivers.[ 5 ] Hereafter the term “dam” will be used interchangeably with “artificial reservoir.”

The world has around 845,000 dams.[ 6 ] The water stored in these large dams amounts to about 10% (or more) of the annual river flow and covers one-third of the Earth’s natural lake areas.[ 6 ] Though no accurate data are available on the volume of water impounded behind dams, estimates show that up to 10,800 cubic kilometers (km3) of water may have been impounded. This volume is equal to a volume of the world’s ocean water created to a depth of 30 mm.[ 7 ] To get an idea of the distribution of dams around the world, one can refer to the most comprehensive compilation of large dams archived by the Global Water Project and known as the GRanD database)[ 8 ] Figure 3.1 shows the global distribution of large dams. According to this GRanD database, about 34% of these large dams are engaged in irrigation.

In the United States, statistics may suggest that dam building is a thing of the past and not a current focus for the civil engineering profession (Figure 3.2).[ 10 , 11 ] However, for vast regions of the underdeveloped or developing world, large dam construction projects will continue in increasing numbers for tackling the rising water deficit for emerging economies. Examples of such large dam projects are the Southeast Anatolia Project or GAP (Turkish acronym) project in Turkey comprising 22 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers)[ 12 ] the Three Gorges Dam (TGD) in China,[ 13 ] Itaipu Dam in Brazil,[ 14 ] and the proposed Indian River Linking Project.[ 15 ] Thus, an understanding of the impact of dams on local climate and water cycle is important for sustainable development in the developing world.

Figure 3.1   (See color insert.) The global distribution of large dams and their main purpose as archived in the GRanD database.

The percentage of dams per state that will be over 50 years old in
                              2020.

Figure 3.2   The percentage of dams per state that will be over 50 years old in 2020.

Source: Reproduced from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report.[ 9 ]

In current literature, the impact of global climate change (which is usually perceived as a large-scale phenomenon based on a globally rising temperature trend) on dams and water supply has been studied at regional scales for some timed[ 16 , 17 ] This is also evident from a comprehensive literature synthesis published by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) on climate change adaptation.[ 18 ] The converse (impact of reservoirs on local climate), which is the focus of this entry, has not been explored in depth yet.[ 19 , 20 ]

A broader view of the change a dam typically triggers needs to be considered if we are to understand the changes a dam can initiate on the local climate. At a minimum, a dam changes the pre-existing landscape to an open body of water, which then leads to a change in surface albedo, surface roughness, and sensible and latent heat fluxes. A flood control or a hydropower dam can also accelerate the pace of urbanization in the downstream and flood-safe valley regions. Irrigation dams intensify agricultural production in the vicinity of the reservoir.

As mentioned earlier, of the various LULC changes due to dams, irrigation is the most widespread. Global data and simulation analysis by Biemans et al.[ 21 ] report that artificial reservoirs contribute significantly to irrigation water supply in many regions around the world. The additional contribution of reservoirs to irrigation has increased spectacularly from 5% (around 1900 A.D.) to almost 40% in the 21st century.[ 21 ] When such changes to the land cover and land use (LCLU) are assessed in relation to existing knowledge on their impact on climate,[ 22–24 ] it becomes apparent that a typical dam-reservoir system can, in principle, change the local climate through a gradual change in the landscape. Examples of the effect of local LULC on precipitation include Gero et al., Lei et al., Shepherd et al., and Niyogi et al.[ 25–28 ] Recently, there have been studies that report that there is global scale impact from irrigation,[ 29 ] of which a significant fraction of this irrigation is the result of water made available for vegetation from artificial reservoirs.

The change to local climate near dams is expected to be particularly noticeable on temperature and precipitation patterns during the growing season. For example, Mahmood et al.[ 30 ] showed that irrigation in the Great Plains during growing season (May through September) might have caused regional cooling by 1.41°C of growing season mean maximum temperatures at irrigated locations during the post-1945 period. A few other studies support the notion that atmospheric moisture added by irrigation can also increase rainfall, provided that the mesoscale conditions are appropriate.[ 31 , 32 ] De Angelis et al.[ 33 ] have reported an increase of 10–30% of rainfall downwind of the Ogallala aquifer that has been used for ground water-based irrigation in the Great Plains. A statistical analysis of observed rainfall frequency downwind of irrigated lands in South Spain (upper and lower Vegas and lower Guadalquivir) found a significant increase in the number of months with minimum precipitation after irrigation when compared with pre-irrigation records.[ 34 ] In summary, dams can, therefore, clearly cause a change of climate in their vicinity through systematic change in the land use and land cover.

While the climate effects of LULC change attributable to large dams have been explored, the hydrology impact is not understood as well yet and therefore needs to be explored. Qualitative investigation of databases archived by the National Performance of Dams Program (NPDP; http://npdp.stanford.edu) reveals that historically, the number of reported incidences of embankment overtopping far exceeds that of structural failures. According to our NPDP survey, a total of 1133 dams have overtopped hydrologically between 1889 and 2006. Of these, 625 experienced a complete “hydrologic performance failure,” most likely due to increased reservoir inflow from upstream. Herein, it is important to note that the land use changes can amplify the surface runoff generation mechanism in two ways: (1) through modification of precipitation rates leading to increased infiltration–excess runoff and (2) through enhancement of rainfall partitioning as runoff due to increased imperviousness. The former cause is akin to a “strategic” cause that occurs through gradual change in the local climate in the post-dam era, while the latter is a more “tactical” (instantaneous) cause (of increasing imperviousness). Both causes may be equally important and may work together to magnify the intensification of upstream runoff, as the dam ages.

Is the Impact of Dams Detectable from Observational Records?

The previous section dwelt on a “can”-type question on how a dam–reservoir system is physically capable of changing the pre-dam climate. This section addresses the following question: If dams can really change local climate in principle, can we detect it from observational records? Wu et al.[ 35 ] examined the effect of the TGD of China, built in 1998, on the regional precipitation around its vicinity by analyzing satellite precipitation data. Based on their 8-year data analysis (1998–2006), they concluded that filling up of the TGD reservoir was found to correlate with an increase in precipitation in the nearby region. However, at other regions, precipitation was found to experience a decrease.

For a more in-depth and comprehensive analysis of observational data (comprising several dams and multidecadal data), a recent effort by Hossain et al.[ 20 ] is recounted here as is hereafter with kind permission granted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Ninety-two dams located in the United States and defined as large, according to the standards set by the International Commission on Large Dams, were recently studied in a manner similar to a recent study by Degu et al.[ 19 ] The database on dams was available from a series of world dam registers published by the Global Water Systems Project Digital Water Atlas.[ 36 ] These dams were spread across eight distinct Köppen climate zones (Figure 3.3). For the observational record of climate, reanalysis data from the National Center for Environmental Prediction, North American Regional Reanalysis (NARR),[ 37 , 38 ] were used. NARR provides good quality and finer-resolution climate dataset for North America. Daily NARR fields span a period from 1979 to 2009 (30 years) and focus on the daily average of the surface Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE; J/kg) as a proxy signature of dams.[ 39 ] Among the many important ingredients required for rainfall, CAPE can be considered an important atmospheric indicator of the presence of heavy rainfall process. The objective was to identify detectable changes in the CAPE climatology (available at 32 km spatial scales) in the vicinity of the dams for a given climate zone.

Figure 3.3   (See color insert.) Location of the 92 large dams according to the Köppen climate map.

Source: Reprinted with kind permission from American Society of Civil Engineers.

Because the NARR record of CAPE does not date back before the construction of most large dams in the United States, the ergodic assumption was invoked to answer the “detection” and “have”-type question posed in this section. The spatial average of CAPE over a region far away from dams (referred to as “no-dam” region) was considered as a substitute for the temporal average of CAPE during the pre-dam era. In other words, the average CAPE over the “no-dam” region was used to represent the “pre-dam” climatology of convective atmospheric instability. Vice versa, the average CAPE over the “dam” region was used as a proxy for the post-dam climatology. Herein, the “no-dam” region was defined as the annular region 100 km outside the dam’s spillway having the same area as the “dam” region (Figure 3.4). To attribute the unique and local impact due to the dam alone, a “dam” region was defined as a circular area having a 50 km radius around the dam location (Figure 3.4).

For a statistical generalization of the 92 dams, Table 3.1 shows the relative ranking of the dams in terms of the % change (increase or decrease in the climatologic average of CAPE) between the “dam” and “no-dam” region. Here, the % change in CAPE is defined as

Percent increase  =   ( mean  of   Dam mean  of    No  Dam ) mean  of  No dam   ×   100 %

Herein, the “mean” refers to the 30-year climatologic average for the period 1979–2009. It is very clear from Table 3.1 that dams in the Mediterranean climate (Koppen class name is Dry Summer Subtropical) consistently experience the highest alteration of CAPE near the reservoir (“dam”) region. Subsequently, this change is matched by dams located in hot or cold arid climates. Dams in humid or arctic climates exhibit spatially insignificant increases (<5%) in CAPE near the reservoir. An important aspect to note is the likely absence of irrigation in humid and arctic climates that may be one of the contributing factors for spatial uniformity of CAPE near and away from the reservoir. As an example, Figure 3.5 shows the time series of 30-year CAPE climatology for two dams in contrasting climates (Walter Dam in Alabama and Coolidge Dam in Arizona). Two possible reasons may be attributed for the intensification of CAPE by dams in arid and Mediterranean climates: (1) more widespread irrigation; and (2) stronger spatial gradients in humidity and surface evaporation around the reservoir–shoreline interface.

Figure 3.4   The 50 km buffer zone showing the “dam” and the 100 km away annular region (outer encircle) as “no-dam region.”

Source: Reprinted with kind permission from American Society of Civil Engineers.

Table 3.1   Ranking of Dams Studied according to % Change in CAPE Climatology between Dam and No-Dam Regions. Only a % Change of up to 1% Is Reported in the Table

Köppen–Geiger Climate

Dam

State

% Increment

Dry Summer Subtropical

New Bullards Bar

California

105.01

Dry Summer Subtropical

Oroville

California

99.00

Dry Summer Subtropical

New Exchequer

California

80.91

Dry Summer Subtropical

Shasta

California

66.89

Dry Summer Subtropical

Folsom

California

56.86

Dry Summer Subtropical

Don Pedro

California

56.06

Dry Summer Subtropical

Trinity

California

42.41

Dry Summer Subtropical

Monticello

California

33.79

Dry Summer Subtropical

Pine Flat Lake

California

31.31

Dry Summer Subtropical

Swift

Washington

27.22

Warm Summer Continental

Conklingville

New York

26.36

Dry Summer Subtropical

Dworshak

Idaho

25.73

Cold Semiarid

Kingsley

Nebraska

21.27

Cold Semiarid

Yellowtail

Montana

20.61

Humid Subtropical

Hartwell

Georgia

20.42

Warm Summer Continental

Albeni Falls

Idaho

18.01

Warm Summer Continental

Hungry Horse

Montana

16.66

Warm Summer Continental

Kerr

Montana

15.35

Cold Arid

Hoover

Nevada

14.16

Humid Subtropical

Smith Mountain

Virginia

13.45

Humid Subtropical

Pensacola

Florida

13.09

Warm Summer Continental

Seminoe

Wyoming

12.13

Warm Summer Continental

Palisades

Idaho

11.19

Hot Arid

Davis

Arizona

11.17

Humid Subtropical

Center Hill

Tennessee

10.87

Hot Semiarid

Robert Lee

Texas

7.86

Humid Subtropical

Little River

South Carolina

7.49

Continental Subarctic

Blue Mesa

Colorado

7.26

Dry Summer Subtropical

Mossyrock

Washington

6.13

Humid Subtropical

Sardis

Mississippi

5.97

Cold Semiarid

Owyhee

Oregon

5.47

Cold Semiarid

Pathfinder

Wyoming

4.78

Dry Summer Subtropical

New Melones

California

4.24

Humid Subtropical

Richard B. Russell

Georgia

4.02

Humid Subtropical

Wolf Creek

Kentucky

3.97

Humid Subtropical

Eufaula

Oklahoma

3.75

Humid Subtropical

Dale Hollow

Tennessee

3.38

Continental Subarctic

Oahe

South Dakota

3.35

Cold Semiarid

Coolidge

Arizona

3.28

Cold Semiarid

Buffalo Bill

Wyoming

3.03

Warm Summer Continental

Libby

Montana

2.98

Humid Subtropical

Stockton

Missouri

2.79

Cold Semiarid

Tiber

Montana

2.23

Hot Semiarid

Twin Buttes

Texas

2.19

Cold Semiarid

Fort Peck

Montana

1.86

Figure 3.5   Comparison of Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) climatology (30 year) for dam- and no-dam region for Coolidge (in arid climate, Arizona) and Walter (in humid climate, Alabama) dams.

Source: Reprinted with kind permission from American Society of Civil Engineers.

Conclusion

This entry presented a review of what is currently known about the potential impact of large artificial reservoirs and dams on the local climate based on the premise of systematic change in climate-sensitive LCLU that most dams initiate. To better understand the implication of local climate changes, it is, therefore, important to have a broader view of the changes to the landscape in the post-dam era. However, in the future, other factors, such as urbanization,[ 40 ] atmospheric aerosols,[ 28 ] and global warming,[ 18 ] need to be explored as well. These factors are well known to initiate changes in local climate, particularly to precipitation. Systematic changes in precipitation patterns can also gradually alter the hydrology of the impounded river basin, which is currently not well understood. For example, more intensified storms near the reservoir shorelines or overly dense irrigated landscapes may result in more runoff, erosion, and water-logging issues. The groundwater table may rise and gradually change infiltration–excess runoff areas to a more excess saturation type. Overall, it is intuitive to expect that the hydrological impact due to changing rainfall patterns will differ upstream and downstream of the reservoir due to the hydraulic head differences and seepage issues. For better water resources management, it is now timely to investigate the changing hydrology of aging dams, which undergo a shift in local rainfall dynamics.

Acknowledgments

This entry was reproduced from an earlier forum article that appeared in ASCE Journal of Hydrologic Engineering titled “Climate Feedback-based Considerations to Dam Design, Operations and Water Management in the 21st Century” (vol. 17(8), pp. 837–850, doi:10.1061/(ASCE) HE.1943–5584.0000541).

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