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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Global phosphorus retention by river damming

  • Author(s): Maavara, T
  • Parsons, CT
  • Ridenour, C
  • Stojanovic, S
  • Dürr, HH
  • Powley, HR
  • Van Cappellen, P
  • et al.

More than 70,000 large dams have been built worldwide. With growing water stress and demand for energy, this number will continue to increase in the foreseeable future. Damming greatly modifies the ecological functioning of river systems. In particular, dam reservoirs sequester nutrient elements and, hence, reduce downstream transfer of nutrients to floodplains, lakes, wetlands, and coastal marine environments. Here, we quantify the global impact of dams on the riverine fluxes and speciation of the limiting nutrient phosphorus (P), using a mechanistic modeling approach that accounts for the in-reservoir biogeochemical transformations of P. According to the model calculations, the mass of total P (TP) trapped in reservoirs nearly doubled between 1970 and 2000, reaching 42 Gmol y-1, or 12% of the global river TP load in 2000. Because of the current surge in dam building, we project that by 2030, about 17% of the global river TP load will be sequestered in reservoir sediments. The largest projected increases in TP and reactive P (RP) retention by damming will take place in Asia and South America, especially in the Yangtze, Mekong, and Amazon drainage basins. Despite the large P retention capacity of reservoirs, the export of RP from watersheds will continue to grow unless additional measures are taken to curb anthropogenic P emissions.

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