Snow drought reduces water transit times in headwater streams

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
Publication Number: 

Segura, Catalina. 2021. Snow drought reduces water transit times in headwater streams. Hydrological Processes. 35. 17 pp. doi:


Knowledge of water transit times through watersheds is fundamental to understand hydrological and biogeochemical processes. However, its prediction is still elusive, particularly in mountainous terrain where physiography and precipitation change over short distances. In addition, much remains to be studied about the impact of climate change on transit time as it continues to change precipitation form in mountainous terrain. Water isotopic ratios were used to evaluate mean transit time (MTT) and young water fractions (F*yw) in seven small mountainous watersheds in western Oregon over the 2014–2018 period that included a major regional snow drought in 2015. The MTT was shorter in 2015 across all watersheds compared to any other year while the F*yw was larger in 2015 than in any other year. The short transit times observed in 2015 could be related to low connectivity between surface water and older ground water which resulted in a homogenous hydrologic response across all the investigated watersheds despite their physiographical differences. The 2016–2018 MTT vary widely across all watersheds but especially within the smaller high elevation watersheds indicating that the impact of the 2015 snow drought was stronger for systems that depend heavily on snowmelt inputs. During relatively wet/cold years intrinsic watershed characteristics such as drainage area and terrain roughness explained some of the variability in transit time metrics across all watersheds. Shorter transit times during the drought have implications for water quality and solute concentrations as biogeochemical processes are controlled in part by the time water resides and interacts within the subsurface. Although the impact of the 2015 snow drought appears short-lived these results are particularly critical considering the expected regional snowpack decline as the climate warms in the western United States.