Leveraging Groundwater Dynamics to Improve Predictions of Summer Low-Flow Discharges

Publications Type: 
Journal Article
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Johnson, Keira; Harpold, Adrian; Carroll, Rosemary W. H.; Barnard, Holly; Raleigh, Mark S.; Segura, Catalina; Li, Li; Williams, Kenneth H.; Dong, Wenming; Sullivan, Pamela L. 2023. Leveraging Groundwater Dynamics to Improve Predictions of Summer Low-Flow Discharges. Water Resources Research. 59(8): e2023WR035126. doi:https://doi.org/10.1029/2023WR035126


Summer streamflow predictions are critical for managing water resources; however, warming-induced shifts from snow to rain regimes impact low-flow predictive models. Additionally, reductions in snowpack drive earlier peak flows and lower summer flows across the western United States increasing reliance on groundwater for maintaining summer streamflow. However, it remains poorly understood how groundwater contributions vary interannually. We quantify recession limb groundwater (RLGW), defined as the proportional groundwater contribution to the stream during the period between peak stream flow and low flow, to predict summer low flows across three diverse western US watersheds. We ask (a) how do snow and rain dynamics influence interannual variations of RLGW contributions and summer low flows?; (b) which watershed attributes impact the effectiveness of RLGW as a predictor of summer low flows? Linear models reveal that RLGW is a strong predictor of low flows across all sites and drastically improves low-flow prediction compared to snow metrics at a rain-dominated site. Results suggest that strength of RLGW control on summer low flows may be mediated by subsurface storage. Subsurface storage can be divided into dynamic (i.e., variability saturated) and deep (i.e., permanently saturated) components, and we hypothesize that interannual variability in dynamic storage contribution to streamflow drives RLGW variability. In systems with a higher proportion of dynamic storage, RLGW is a better predictor of summer low flow because the stream is more responsive to dynamic storage contributions compared to deep-storage-dominated systems. Overall, including RLGW improved low-flow prediction across diverse watersheds.