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Ecosystem impacts of Alpine water intakes for hydropower: the challenge of sediment management
The natural flow hydrological characteristics (such as the magnitude, frequency, duration, timing, and rate of change of discharge) of Alpine streams, dominated by snowmelt and glacier melt, have been established for many years. More recently, the ecosystems that they sustain have been described and explained. However, natural Alpine flow regimes may be strongly modified by hydroelectric power production, which impacts upon both river discharge and sediment transfer, and hence on downstream flora and fauna. The impacts of barrages or dams have been well studied. However, there is a second type of flow regulation, associated with flow abstraction at intakes where the water is transferred laterally, either to another valley for storage, or at altitude within the same valley for eventual release downstream. Like barrages, such intakes also trap sediment, but because they are much smaller, they fill more frequently and so need to be flushed regularly. Downstream, while the flow regime is substantially modified, the delivery of sediment (notably coarser fractions) remains. The ecosystem impacts of such systems have been rarely considered. Through reviewing the state of our knowledge of Alpine ecosystems, we outline the key research questions that will need to be addressed in order to modify intake management so as to reduce downstream ecological impacts. Simply redesigning river flows to address sediment management will be ineffective because such redesign cannot restore a natural sediment regime and other approaches are likely to be required if stream ecology in such systems is to be improved.
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