Assessing the cumulative impacts of hydropower regulation on the flow characteristics of a large atlantic salmon river system

Christian Birkel*, Christopher Soulsby, Genevieve Aicha Ali, Doerthe Tetzlaff

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


We assessed the influence of hydropower on the flow characteristics of the river Tay, one of the UK's most heavily regulated catchments and important Atlantic salmon fisheries. Hydropower developments in the mid-20th century preceded flow data collection, resulting in knowledge gaps over how far regulated flows deviate from natural and how ecosystem functioning might have been impacted. We used 29 unregulated catchments in and around the Tay to assess the relationships between hydroclimatic conditions, landscape structure and the overall flow regime, as well as the annual, monthly and daily flow metrics. This allowed the identification of flow characteristics by using an integrated suite of regression approaches (nonlinear, MLR and random forests) to assess likely impacts at 11 regulated sites. The results showed that the impacts of regulation are highly variable in both space and time. Headwater sub-catchments are most heavily affected, and water imports or exports as part of hydropower schemes can increase or decrease annual runoff by up to 50%, respectively. On a monthly basis, regulation primarily increased summer low flows; winter high flows increased in catchments affected by water imports and reduced where there was a net water export. At larger catchment scales, impacts were relatively small, as unregulated tributaries re-naturalize the flows and the effects of intra-basin transfers balance. Non-stationarity in climate and water use in the catchment dictates that adaptive management of flows may be necessary to protect ecosystems services.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)456-475
Number of pages20
JournalRiver Research and Applications
Issue number4
Early online date5 Apr 2013
Publication statusPublished - May 2014

Bibliographical note

We gratefully acknowledge the data provided for this study by several Scottish and UK institutions: discharge and climate data were kindly provided by the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Una Thom, Joe Glennie and Kirsty-Anne Wilson), climate data were also compiled from the British Atmospheric Data Center, topographic data were analysed using the data provided by EDINA and general catchment information was taken from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology National River Archive. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive criticism that significantly improved an earlier version of this manuscript.


  • Catchment characteristics
  • Gamma distribution
  • Hydropower
  • Impact assessment
  • Random forests
  • Stream regulation
  • Streamflow dynamics


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