Dams in the Cadillac Desert: Downstream effects in a geomorphic context

John Sabo, Kevin Bestgen, Will Graf, Tushar Sinha, Ellen E. Wohl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


This paper was motivated by the 25th anniversary of the publication of Marc Reisner's book, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. Dams are ubiquitous on rivers in the United States, and large dams and storage reservoirs are the hallmark of western U.S. riverscapes. The effects of dams on downstream river ecosystems have attracted much attention and are encapsulated in the serial discontinuity concept (SDC). In the SDC, dams create abrupt shifts in continua of downstream changes in physical and biotic properties. In this paper, we develop a framework for understanding how channel geometry and network structure influence how the physical components of habitat and the biota rebound from discontinuities set up by large dams. We apply this framework to data describing the flow regime, temperature, sediment flux, and fish community composition below Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, and Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River. Sediment flux in dam tailwaters is under strong control by channel geometry. By contrast, dam-related changes in temperature and flow variation are not significantly modulated by channel geometry or tributary inputs if flow volumes are small (Missouri and Colorado River tributaries). Instead, small tributaries provide near-native conditions (flow and temperature variation) and, as such, provide key refuges for biota from novel habitats in mainstem rivers below large dams. Unregulated tributaries that are large relative to their respective mainstem (e.g., Yampa River) provide refuges as well as significant amelioration of flow and temperature effects from upstream dams. Finally, the proportion of native fish increases with distance from dam and exhibits sharp increases near tributary junctions. These results suggest that tributaries-even minor ones in terms of relative discharge-act as key refugia for native species in regulated river networks. Moreover, large, unregulated tributaries are key to restoring continuity in physical habitat and the biota in large regulated rivers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)227-246
Number of pages20
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2012


  • Dam
  • Fish
  • Flow anomaly
  • Network
  • Nonnative species
  • River
  • Sediment
  • Temperature
  • Tributary
  • Valley form

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Dams in the Cadillac Desert: Downstream effects in a geomorphic context'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this