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Understanding How Reservoir Operations Influence Methane Emissions: A Conceptual Model

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Because methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), understanding controls on methane emissions from reservoirs is an important goal. Yet, reservoirs are complex ecosystems, and mechanisms by which reservoir operations influence methane emissions are poorly understood. In part, this is because emissions occur in ‘hot spots’ and ‘hot moments’. In this study, we address three research questions, ‘What are the causal pathways through which reservoir operations and resulting water level fluctuations (WLF) influence methane emissions?’; ‘How do influences from WLF differ for seasonal drawdown and diurnal hydropeaking operations?’; and ‘How does understanding causal pathways inform practical options for mitigation?’. A graphical conceptual model is presented that links WLF in reservoirs to methane emissions via four causal pathways: (1) water-column mixing (2) drying–rewetting cycles, (3) sediment delivery and redistribution, and (4) littoral vegetation. We review what is known about linkages for WLF at seasonal and diurnal resolutions generate research questions, and hypothesize strategies for moderating methane emissions by interrupting each causal pathway. Those related to flow management involve basin-scale management of tributary flows, seasonal timing of hydropeaking (pathway #1), timing and rates of drawdown (pathway #2). In addition, we describe how sediment (pathway #3) and vegetation management (pathway #4) could interrupt linkages between WLF and emissions. We demonstrate the strength of conceptual modeling as a tool for generating plausible hypotheses and suggesting mitigation strategies. Future research is needed to develop simpler models at appropriate timescales that can be validated and used to manage flow releases from reservoirs.