June 1, 2018

Water Management Influences Long-Term Changes in River Flows

Changes in water volume tend to be smaller in managed watersheds but occur earlier


Difference in seasonal emergence of change in flow regimes over the western U.S. for the RCP 8.5 scenario. Purple (positive) indicates that regulated flow is less sensitive to Earth system change than natural flow (change emerges later, even if smaller). 

The Science

Water management activities, such as irrigation withdrawals and dam operations, strongly influence the flow of water through a watershed.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory conducted the first regional modeling study to explore how these activities might modulate the effects of long-term changes in temperature and precipitation on regulated river flows. They found that close to half of the watersheds in the western United States could experience noticeable flow changes earlier in the century than they would in the absence of water management.

While results vary substantially across different watershed regions and seasons, the overall magnitude of change tends to be smaller in highly managed watersheds.

The Impact

This work is the first large-scale investigation of the "emergence of change" in highly regulated versus unregulated rivers—that is, it accounts for the influence of water management as well as for changing environmental conditions. Water management activities are generally thought to reduce flow variations, which was confirmed. However, the work revealed that water management can accelerate the emergence of these smaller changes.

The findings highlight significant regional and seasonal differences in how long-term Earth system changes will affect water availability. These results can be used to help understand and prepare for possible shifts in the timing and magnitude of future flows in the western United States. The research also highlights the need to account for human influences when constructing models of energy systems and other sectors that are strongly affected by changes in water availability.


Reference: T. Zhou, N. Voisin, G. Leng, M. Huang, and I. Kraucunas, "Sensitivity of Regulated Flow Regimes to Climate Change in the Western United States." Journal of Hydrometeorology 19, 3 (2018). [DOI: 10.1175/JHM-D-17-0095.1]

Key Capabilities


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Published: June 1, 2018

PNNL Research Team

Tian Zhou, Nathalie Voisin, Guoyong Leng, Maoyi Huang, and Ian Kraucunas