Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Analysis
  • Published:

Tracking the pulse of the Earth’s fresh waters


Reliable accounting of freshwater resources is key to managing hydrologic risk and balancing freshwater allocations for ecosystems and society. However, recent claims have argued that the global hydrometric network is not keeping pace with monitoring needs. Here we examine this question globally and reveal that over the past four decades the number of streamgaging stations reporting to global, open datasets has been declining. In the United States, a declining trend was reversed by the turn of the century, but high volatility at the river basin scale threatens continued monitoring in over a quarter of the river basins of the conterminous United States. We propose to prioritize streamgaging rescue by identifying watersheds that heavily rely on hydrologic data to support freshwater biodiversity conservation, and to manage flood or water scarcity risk to human populations. We argue that actions at different institutional levels are needed to secure the accumulation of long-term data needed for sustainable water management.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Global trends in streamgaging stations reporting to the Global Runoff Data Centre.
Fig. 2: Trends in the number of active streamgaging stations in the USGS hydrometric network.
Fig. 3: Streamgaging decline risk and socio-environmental monitoring needs in the United States.
Fig. 4: Spatial distribution of streamgaging decline risk in the United States.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Bell, B. The oldest records of the Nile floods. Geogr. J. 136, 569–573 (1970).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Guide to Hydrological Practices Volume I: Hydrology – From Measurement to Hydrological Information Report No. 168 (World Meteorological Organization, 2008).

  3. Escriva-Bou, A., McCann, H., Hanak, E., Lund, J. & Gray, B. Accounting for California’s water. Calif. J. Polit. Policy 8, 1–26 (2016).

  4. Natural Catastrophes (Munich RE, 2017);

  5. Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service (AHPS) for Water Resources and Emergency Management (NOAA, 2017);

  6. Vahedifard, F., AghaKouchak, A., Ragno, E., Shahrokhabadi, S. & Mallakpour, I. Lessons from the Oroville dam. Science 355, 1139–1140 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Milly, P. C. D. et al. Stationarity is dead: whither water management? Science 319, 573–574 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Willner, S. N., Levermann, A., Zhao, F. & Frieler, K. Adaptation required to preserve future high-end river flood risk at present levels. Sci. Adv. 4, eaao1914 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Hannah, D. M. et al. Large‐scale river flow archives: importance, current status and future needs. Hydrol. Process. 25, 1191–1200 (2011).

  10. Vörösmarty, C. et al. Global water data: a newly endangered species. Eos 82, 54–58 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Granato, G. E. Computer Programs for Obtaining and Analyzing Daily Mean Streamflow Data from the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Information System Website (USGS, 2009).

  12. Goodall, J. L., Horsburgh, J. S., Whiteaker, T. L., Maidment, D. R. & Zaslavsky, I. A first approach to web services for the National Water Information System. Environ. Model. Softw. 23, 404–411 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Fekete, B. M., Looser, U., Pietroniro, A. & Robarts, R. D. Rationale for monitoring discharge on the ground. J. Hydrometeorol. 13, 1977–1986 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Lanfear, K. J. & Hirsch, R. M. USGS Study reveals a decline in long‐record streamgages. Eos 80, 605–607 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Hirsch, R. M. & Costa, J. E. U.S. stream flow measurement and data dissemination improve. Eos 85, 197–203 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Nyabeze, W. R. Calibrating a distributed model to estimate runoff for ungauged catchments in Zimbabwe. Phys. Chem. Earth 30, 625–633 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Mishra, A. K. & Coulibaly, P. Developments in hydrometric network design: a review. Rev. Geophys. 47, RG2001 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. US Geological Survey 2019 Budget Justification (USGS, 2018).

  19. Poff, N. L. et al. River flows and water wars: emerging science for environmental decision making. Front. Ecol. Environ. 1, 298–306 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Ward, F. A. & Booker, J. F. Economic costs and benefits of instream flow protection for endangered species in an international basin. J. Am. Water Resour. Assoc. 39, 427–440 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Benson, R. D. Pollution without solution: flow impairment problems under Clean Water Act Section 303. Stanf. Environ. Law J. 24, 199–267 2005).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Van Putten, M. C. & Jackson, B. D. The dilution of the Clean Water Act. Univ. Mich. J. Law Reform. 19, 863–901 (1985).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Deweber, J. T. et al. Importance of understanding landscape biases in USGS gage locations: implications and solutions for managers. Fisheries 39, 155–163 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Anderson, D. R. The national flood insurance program. Problems and potential. J. Risk Insur. 41, 579–599 (1974).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Michel-Kerjan, E., Czajkowski, J. & Kunreuther, H. Could flood insurance be privatised in the United States? A primer. Geneva Pap. Risk Insur. Issues Pract. 40, 179–208 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Caldwell, A. W., Conrads, P. A., Mason, R. R. Jr & Berenbrock, C. USGS hurricane storm-surge monitoring networks: an example from Hurricane Rita. In Proc. 2010 South Carolina Water Resources Conference (2010);

  27. Sankarasubramanian, A. et al. Synthesis of public water supply use in the US: spatio‐temporal patterns and socio‐economic controls. Earth’s Future 5, 771–788 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Alsdorf, D. E. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Tracking fresh water from space. Science 301, 1491–1494 (2003).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Hirsch, R. M. & De Cicco, L. A. User Guide to Exploration and Graphics for RivEr Trends (EGRET) and dataRetrieval: R packages for Hydrologic Data (USGS, 2015).

  30. Devineni, N., Lall, U., Etienne, E., Shi, D. & Xi, C. America’s water risk: current demand and climate variability. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 2285–2293 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Maurer, E. P., Wood, A. W., Adam, J. C., Lettenmaier, D. P. & Nijssen, B. A long-term hydrologically based dataset of land surface fluxes and states for the conterminous United States. J. Clim. 15, 3237–3251 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Holmes, E. E., Ward, E. J. & Scheuerell, M. D. Analysis of Multivariate Time-Series Using the MARSS Package Version 3.9 (Northwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA, 2014).

  33. Ruhi, A., Olden, J. D. & Sabo, J. L. Declining streamflow induces collapse and replacement of native fishes in the American Southwest. Front. Ecol. Environ. 14, 465–472 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Evenson, E. J. et al. Strategic Directions for US Geological Survey Water Science, 2012–2022—Observing, Understanding, Predicting, and Delivering Water Science to the Nation (USGS, 2012).

Download references


We thank D. Yeskis, B. Reece and R. Mason (USGS) for answering our questions regarding US streamgage monitoring. We also thank M. Palmer and T. Grantham for their comments. A.R. was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), under funding received from NSF DBI-1052875. Financial support was provided by a H. Mason Keeler Endowed Professorship (School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington) to J.D.O.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.R., M.L.M. and J.D.O. designed the research. M.L.M. collated and visualized the data. A.R. and M.L.M. analysed the data. A.R., M.L.M. and J.D.O. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julian D. Olden.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1 and 2; Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary references

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ruhi, A., Messager, M.L. & Olden, J.D. Tracking the pulse of the Earth’s fresh waters. Nat Sustain 1, 198–203 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene