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Environmental and spatial correlates of hydrologic alteration in a large Mediterranean river catchment
Hydrological alteration in the River Ebro

The natural flow regime is of central importance to the ecological integrity of rivers. Many rivers are heavily regulated and their flow regime has been severely affected by weirs and dams.

However, information on hydrologic alteration is often not readily available or is only available for specific locations that may not coincide spatially with biological sampling sites, which restricts the analysis of the relationship between species and their riverine environment on large spatial scales. In this study on the Ebro River catchment, we applied boosted regression tree analyses to reveal significant environmental and spatial correlates of hydrologic alteration (i.e., differences between observed altered flow and modelled natural flow). Specifically, we used 37 variables related to climate, land use, topology and dams that can be easily derived in GIS systems to assess their association with three indices of hydrologic alteration describing changes in: (i) annual discharge, (ii) summer flow, and (iii) flow seasonality at 220 sites. Our results revealed highly variable spatial patterns of flow alteration in the Mediterranean catchment, which were mainly related to climate (dryness and seasonality), land use patterns, and upstream catchment size. The distance to the next upstream dam and reservoir surface area were the most relevant dam-related predictors of the investigated indices of hydrologic alteration, with the strongest effects of the distance to the next dam being on summer flows. The study also found potential limitations of using simulated, natural flow data from hydrologic models, which might be prone to uncertainties, to assess hydrologic alterations. We therefore (i) suggest that methods need to be improved to appropriately model natural flow regimes and quantify flow alteration, especially for data-limited and ungauged water bodies; and (ii) encourage future research on how global change interacts with river regulation, jointly affecting flow alteration.

Radinger, J., Alcaraz-Hernández, J.D. and García-Berthou, E., 2018. Environmental and spatial correlates of hydrologic alteration in a large Mediterranean river catchment. Science of The Total Environment639, pp.1138-1147.