Dam tailwaters compound the effects of reservoirs on the longitudinal transport of organic carbon in an arid river
Reservoirs on rivers can disrupt organic carbon (OC) transport and transformation, but less is known how river reaches directly below dams contribute to OC processing. We compared how reservoirs and their associated tailwaters affected OC quantity and quality by calculating particulate OC (POC) and dissolved OC (DOC) fluxes, and measuring composition and bioavailability of DOC. We sampled the Yampa River near Maybell, Colorado, USA, and the Green River above and below Fontenelle and Flaming Gorge reservoirs as well as their respective tailwaters from early snowmelt to base flow hydrological conditions. In unregulated reaches (Yampa River, Green River above Fontenelle reservoir), DOC and POC concentrations increased with snowmelt discharge. POC and DOC concentrations also increased with stream discharge below Fontenelle reservoir, but there was no relationship between DOC and stream flow below Flaming Gorge reservoir. The annual load of POC was 3-fold lower below Fontenelle Reservoir and nearly 7-fold lower below Flaming Gorge reservoir, compared to their respective upstream sampling sites. DOC exported to downstream reaches from both reservoirs was less bioavailable, as measured with bioassays, than DOC upriver of the reservoirs. Lastly, tailwater reaches below the reservoirs generated OC, exporting potentially 1.6-2.2 g Cm-2 d(-1) of OC to downstream ecosystems. Therefore, the effect of impounding rivers on C fluxes is greater than the impact of the reservoirs alone given the additive effect of tailwater reaches below dams, which may produce and export comparable amounts of likely autochthonous carbon to downstream reaches.