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Warm water temperatures and shifts in seasonality increase trout recruitment but only moderately decrease adult size in western North American tailwaters

June 6, 2018

Dams throughout western North America have altered thermal regimes in rivers, creating cold, clear “tailwaters” in which trout populations thrive. Ongoing drought in the region has led to highly publicized reductions in reservoir storage and raised concerns about potential reductions in downstream flows. Large changes in riverine thermal regimes may also occur as reservoir water levels drop, yet this potential impact has received far less attention. We analyzed historic water temperature and fish population data to anticipate how trout may respond to future changes in the magnitude and seasonality of river temperatures. We found that summer temperatures were inversely related to reservoir water level, with warm temperatures associated with reduced storage and with dams operated as run-of-river units. Variation in rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) recruitment was linked to water temperature variation, with a 5-fold increase in recruitment occurring at peak summer temperatures (18 °C vs. 7 °C) and a 2.5-fold increase in recruitment when peak temperatures occurred in summer rather than fall. Conversely, adult trout size was only moderately related to temperature. Rainbow and brown trout (Salmo trutta) size decreased by ~24 mm and 20 mm, respectively, as mean annual and peak summer temperatures increased. Further, rainbow trout size decreased by ~29 mm with an earlier onset of cold winter temperatures. While increased recruitment may be the more likely outcome of a warmer and drier climate, density-dependent growth constraints could exacerbate temperature-dependent growth reductions. As such, managers may consider implementing flows to reduce recruitment or altering infrastructure to maintain coldwater reservoir releases.