US Army Corps of Engineers
Institute for Water Resources

Water Management

Activities at Green River Dam were the catalyst for the entire Sustainable Rivers Program. They showed that water management can be more ecologically sustainable without sacrificing other important purposes. These successes sparked the program's growth, which began at a nationwide level in 2002 and expanded in its first decade to include work on 36 reservoirs in eight river basins.

The program aims to improve the health and life of rivers by modifying reservoir operations to achieve ecologically sustainable flows while maintaining or enhancing other project benefits. Our practitioners have advanced this mission through a combination of reservoir reoperation efforts at project sites as well as through training, staff exchanges, and the development of new technologies - all designed to advance the implementation of environmental flows at USACE reservoirs.

Environmental flows are the flows of water in a river that sustain healthy ecosystems and the goods and services that humans derive from them.

Environmental flows were first implemented at the Green River and then on an experimental basis at the Savannah River in Georgia and South Carolina. Following these initial efforts, the Sustainable Rivers Program expanded to a diverse group of sites ranging from New England to the Arizona desert to the Pacific
Northwest.

Staff from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Nature Conservancy recognize the potential for these activities to positively affect operations and surrounding ecosystems at the 600-plus USACE reservoirs managed nationwide.

The Sustainable Rivers Program and Water Management

The Corps began building dams and reservoirs on a large scale starting in the 1930s in response to a string of devastating floods and the economic hardship of the Great Depression. The country’s rapid post-war growth in the 1940s and 1950s required not only flood control but also reliable water supplies and increased electrical output for prospering communities. The Corps was thus called upon to construct reservoirs around the country that achieved multiple purposes.

The environmental effects of dams, reservoirs and other water control structures were poorly understood when many of these projects were built. By the 1960s and 1970s, government agencies, conservation groups and citizens nationwide began to evaluate the ecological impacts of development. The Corps has since worked
to understand the effects of human influences on water resources and, when possible, mitigate impacts and improve the environment. 

The Sustainable Rivers Program continues this work by exploring reservoir re-operations to benefit wildlife as well as humans. Using state-of-the-art technology and scientific expertise, the Corps and Conservancy are working to ensure that dams and reservoirs continue to provide the services people rely on while implementing environmental flows designed to improve conditions for the natural communities that also depend on our nation’s rivers.

Innovation for the Future of River Management

The Corps and Conservancy are developing and applying new approaches to improve river management today and into the future. Collaborative methods to define environmental flows, cooperative experiments, and new technologies are being used to involve stakeholders in water and ecosystem management at our nation’s rivers. By implementing environmental flows at reservoirs, SRP is connecting science and management to increase the productivity and sustainability of our natural systems.

SRP activities increasingly involve multiple river tributaries and reservoirs in a watershed. The greater complexity of a basin-wide effort is both a challenge and an opportunity. These efforts require extensive coordination and technical support, but at the same time enable holistic management practices that benefit rivers and surrounding communities.

Corps and Conservancy personnel are seeking to extend these types of efforts to existing and future SRP sites. Reservoir re-operations at the watershed level can reconnect and enhance ecosystems along rivers, their tributaries and their floodplains. A nationwide survey of reservoirs is helping accelerate the growth of ecologically sustainable reservoir management at rivers around the country.

These efforts are not confined to rivers in the United States. SRP participants assisted in developing environmental flow recommendations for part of the Yangtze River in China, and lessons learned through SRP have the potential to support ecosystem health worldwide.

SRP activities are inspiring changes within the Corps and with national and international partners. In 1998, the Sustainable Rivers Project was an idea shared between a few innovative Corps and Conservancy staff. A decade later it encompassed eight river basins and 36 dams and now aims to build upon its successes and take on new challenges to improve river management in the United States and beyond.