Influence of a low-head dam on water quality of an urban river system

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Environmental Science

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Dam removal in the United States is becoming a common practice for stream restoration as these structures age, climate driven precipitation patterns change, and ecological uplift becomes desirable. Yet in highly urbanized watersheds, these dams may operate as retention basins removing pollutants and mitigating hydrological change. While elimination may be ecologically and economically advantageous, sediment and pollutant removal processes may be better protective of water quality and damaging flooding. In Central Virginia, we compared a watershed split between an urbanized subwatershed (>20% impervious surface encompassing 37.8% of the total watershed land surface) flowing through a 18 Ha reservoir with a rural subwatershed (<5% impervious encompassing 63.2% of the total watershed land surface) located in the James River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds. This reservoir is scheduled for removal in the near future. Comparisons of data suggest that while portions of the urbanized watershed are degraded, this condition is not reflected at the confluence where water quality more closely resembles the rural and minimally impervious subwatershed. This conclusion was further strengthened from data collected following an unexpected dam overtopping in August 2018 where the reservoir was temporarily drained because of safety concerns. After the draining, water quality reversed with the confluence resembling the urbanized rather than the rural subwatershed. Most significantly, water quality flowing into the James River quickly and significantly shifted from a good to a degraded condition. This case study suggests reservoirs in highly urbanized watersheds may serve as critical water quality improvement structures and removal as part of a stream restoration strategy must be carefully considered.