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<Lakes and Reservoirs - Similarities, Differences and Importance>

Management of Lakes and Reservoirs

The Nature of Lake and Reservoir Water Problems

Because the drainage basin is simultaneously (i) the source of water, (ii) the place where it is used, and (iii) where human activities impact both water quantity and quality, the drainage basin is the logical management unit for lakes and reservoirs. Activities that generate pollutants (e.g., urbanization, industrialization, agricultural production) are similar in both lake and reservoir drainage basins, whether from point or nonpoint pollution sources. Point sources are ‘pipeline’ discharges of pollutants to receiving waters, e.g. domestic sewage discharges or industrial waste effluents from factories or plants. They are relatively easy to identify and isolate. In contrast, nonpoint pollution results from storm runoff or snowmelt, which transports polluting materials diffusely and over land in urban and agricultural areas to rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Thus, non-point source pollution is closely tied to precipitation and runoff events, and less predictable and more variable in nature. Because of their diffuse nature, nonpoint pollutant sources are also more difficult to identify and deal with.

Lakes and reservoirs are used for many, often competing human needs (Photo 17), including drinking, agricultural irrigation, industrial and cooling water supply, sports or commercial fisheries (Photo 18), recreation and navigation. Reservoirs are often constructed for the specific purposes of flood control and power generation too (Photo 19). Accordingly, it is difficult to focus on a single issue when considering the long term use and protection of these important and finite water resources.

Of particular importance in addressing lake and reservoir problems is the need to consider an “ecosystem approach”. Here, rather than adopting the sectoral approach that focuses on a single water use, the ecosystem approach considers both human water needs within the larger context of the drainage basin and environmental water needs or ecological requirements. This approach, therefore, is a prudent means of balancing the water needs for economic development and environmental protection.

Virtually all lake and reservoir water problems are related either to issues of (1) quantity – there is too little or too much water, or (2) quality – the water is too degraded (polluted) for drinking water supply, agricultural irrigation and/or industrial or other purposes. The problem of too little water results either from limited precipitation or excessive water usage. In contrast, the problem of too much water is typically manifested as floods. Solutions to these problems, therefore, usually involve developing larger water supplies or reducing current water uses, respectively.

Water quality problems typically involve water pollution issues. Major water pollutants include a variety of organic and inorganic chemicals such as heavy metals and industrial compounds. They can affect human health and/or interfere with industrial or agricultural water use. If the level of a pollutant in the water supply exceeds an acceptable level for a given water use (e.g., domestic or industrial water supply), the water is considered unsafe or too degraded for that use. Solutions to lake and reservoir pollution problems, therefore, usually focus on reduction of pollution at the source and/or treatment of the polluted water prior to use.

Considerations Unique to Reservoirs

Many processes in reservoirs and downstream rivers are complex, long term and “non-traditional” from the perspective of current understanding of lake and river limnology (Table 1). Some non-traditional processes are because reservoirs represent an intermediate aquatic system, one between a flowing river and a lake (Fig. 3), and our limnological understanding of these processes is in its infancy. Nevertheless, each is of significant ecological importance for reservoir management and downstream protection.

Because reservoirs are man-made water-bodies, they are more amenable to artificial operation and regulation than lakes. As previously noted, operational possibilities unique to reservoirs include the ability to (1) discharge known volumes of water at predetermined times, and (2) selective discharge of water from different water layers within the reservoir.

The presence of a reservoir in a drainage basin where no such water-body previously existed significantly impacts on the watercourse, its flora and fauna, and the human inhabitants in the drainage basin. These potential impacts should be identified and thoroughly examined prior to reservoir construction, in order to comprehensively assess the total value of the reservoir project. Procedures to identify and properly evaluate potential environmental, social and economic consequences of reservoir construction involve so-called ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ (EIA). Such an assessment is now obligatory by law in many countries for all new dam construction.

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