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Hydropower Dams Can Harm Coastal Areas Far Downstream

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Hydropower Dams Can Harm Coastal Areas Far Downstream
Shrimp fishing along the coast of Nayarit, Mexico. Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

By Paula Ezcurra and Octavio Aburto

Thousands of hydroelectric dams are under construction around the world, mainly in developing countries. These enormous structures are one of the world's largest sources of renewable energy, but they also cause environmental problems.


Hydropower dams degrade water quality along rivers. Water that flows downstream from the dams is depleted of oxygen, which harms many aquatic animals. The reservoirs above dams are susceptible to harmful algal blooms, and can leach toxic metals such as mercury from submerged soil.

We wanted to know whether dams also impact river systems farther away, at the coastlines where rivers flow into the sea. So we performed a natural experiment comparing four rivers along Mexico's Pacific coast — two that are dammed and two that remain free-flowing. We found that damming rivers has measurable negative ecologic and economic effects on coastal regions more than 60 miles downstream.

Feeding or Starving Coastlines

We studied four river outflows along the Pacific Coast of Mexico in the states of Sinaloa and Nayarit. Two of these were from the San Pedro and Acaponeta rivers, which are relatively unrestricted, with over 75% of their flow unobstructed.

The other two outflows came from the nearby Santiago and Fuerte rivers, which have over 95% of their flow retained in reservoirs. In addition to restricting water flow, these reservoirs trap sediments — over 1 million tons per year along the two rivers combined.

In unobstructed rivers, sediment flows downstream and is eventually deposited along the coast, helping to stabilize the shoreline and sometimes even to build it up. We found that this was happening along the free-flowing Acaponeta and San Pedro rivers.

However, because the sediment from the dammed Santiago and Fuerte rivers is no longer carried downstream, wave action takes over at the coast. At the mouths of these two rivers, we found that waves were eroding up to 33 hectares of combined land — equivalent to about 62 football fields — each year, with widespread ecologic and economic effects on the surrounding regions.

The dammed Fuerto and Santiago Rivers show greater erosion where they reach the Pacific coast than the free-flowing San Pedro and Acaponeta rivers. Images at right show coastline changes during the two periods: blue indicates land accretion, red indicates erosion.

Ezcurra et al., 2019., CC BY-NC

The Ecology of Healthy Coasts

Our field research clearly showed that coastal instability resulting from sediment loss at the mouths of the dammed rivers was harming ecosystems along the shore. For example, we found that coastal regions downstream of free-flowing rivers had significantly more plant diversity. Many of these plants were found only in coastal areas, and therefore had high conservation value.

Coastal erosion due to lack of sediment input from the rivers also reduces critical nursery habitat, such as mangrove forest, where many commercially important fish species spend their juvenile stage. We found that fishing activity at the mouth of the free-flowing San Pedro River was much higher than around the mouth of the dammed Fuerte River. This loss of fishing potential comes at a cost of around $1.3 million every year.

Reduced sediment flow also deprives coastal estuaries of nutrients. Lucrative shrimp and oyster fisheries in the region we studied rely heavily on nutrient inputs from rivers. In the San Pedro River region, these fisheries generate around $5.8 million yearly; near the dammed rivers, they have been all but abandoned.

Coastal mangrove wetlands also protect shorelines from hurricanes and tropical storms, and serve as recreational areas and conservation habitat for wildlife. Knowing this, we calculated that the loss of these ecosystem services around the dammed rivers totals $3.9 million annually.

Vegetation profile of sandbars of the free-flowing San Pedro River (A) and dammed Santiago River (B), where receding black mangrove forest is being eroded away into the advancing coastline

Ezcurra et al., 2019, CC BY-NC

Still another valuable function that mangrove wetlands perform is storing "blue carbon" in plant tissue and soils, reducing the effects of climate change. But when coastlines recede and mangroves are destroyed, this carbon is released. We calculated that mangrove loss in our study region represented a loss of around $130,000 in annual carbon trading potential for this region.

Adding up all of the ecological services that coastal ecosystems provide, we estimate that the economic consequences of shoreline loss around the Santiago and Fuerte rivers related to hydroelectric damming totaled well over $10 million yearly.

Letting More Sediment Flow

Because sediments are so essential to areas around river mouths, reducing sediment trapping behind dams could mitigate some harmful impacts on coastal areas. There are several ways to do this — notably, sediment bypassing, or diverting a portion of the sediments flowing from upriver around dams and allowing it to rejoin the river downstream.

This strategy can be included in new construction or incorporated into existing dams. In addition to reducing dams' environmental impacts, it also increases dams' service lives by reducing the rate at which their reservoirs fill up with silt.

To date, environmental impact assessments of large inland dams have often failed to properly analyze the impacts that these dams will have downriver on coastlines, estuaries, deltas and lagoons. Our study shows how important it is to fully account for dams' environmental and economic impacts along coasts and basins.

Mexico may be at a juncture in its approach to hydropower. The Mexican government recently contracted with Hydro-Quebec, the world's largest hydroelectric power producer, to revamp existing dams across the country. And a recent study by a Mexican nongovernment organization, SuMar-Voces por la Naturaleza, reported that a long-disputed proposal to build a new hydroelectric dam at Las Cruces is neither financially feasible nor needed to meet energy demand for the region, prompting national groups to call for the final cancellation of the project.

We believe that Mexico and all nations working to develop efficient, low-impact energy sources should take a holistic approach to future dam-related projects, so they can weigh their potentially harmful consequences. The coastal effects that we documented should be part of those reviews.

Paula Ezcurra is a digital communications specialist with the Gulf of California Marine Program, University of California San Diego.
Octavio Aburto is an assistant professor of marine biology with the the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California San Diego.
Disclosure statement: Octavio Aburto receives funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, UC MEXUS and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Paula Ezcurra does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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