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The human factor in seasonal streamflows across natural and managed watersheds of North America

Abstract

While it is established that climate change and human activities (for example, urbanization, dams) alter streamflows, there exists considerable uncertainty regarding the relative magnitude of their contributions. Most studies have focused on annual flows and found trends to be dominated by climate. Here we compare trends in seasonal flow totals for 315 natural and 1,957 managed watersheds across North America over 60 years (1950–2009). We find an amplification of seasonal flow trends in 44% of the managed watersheds, while 48% of the watersheds exhibit flow dampening. The magnitudes of amplification (20–167%) and dampening (5–52%) are substantial and vary seasonally. Multivariate models reveal that while rainfall, slope and forest cover are the key drivers of seasonal trends in natural watersheds, canals, impervious areas and dam storage dominate the responses in managed watersheds. Our findings of human-driven seasonal flow alterations highlight the need to develop adaptation strategies that mitigate the associated negative impacts.

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Fig. 1: Seasonal streamflow trends over 60 years (1950–2009).
Fig. 2: The distribution of managed watersheds across the magnitudes of the four alteration metrics for each season.
Fig. 3: Spatial patterns of alteration over 60 years (1950–2009).
Fig. 4: Implications of flow amplification and dampening (RPP and RNN) in managed watersheds on water security (floods and droughts), and the potential human factors that drive such flow alterations.
Fig. 5: The ranking of key variables derived from RF models of seasonal flow trends in natural and managed watersheds.

Data availability

Flow datasets used in the study are publicly available from the United States Geological Survey (https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt) and the Water Survey of Canada (https://wateroffice.ec.gc.ca/mainmenu/historical_data_index_e.html). The Gauges II datasets are publicly available through the USGS (https://water.usgs.gov/GIS/metadata/usgswrd/XML/gagesII_Sept2011.xml#stdorder). The climatic datasets used in the study are publicly available from Oregon State University (https://prism.oregonstate.edu/).

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Acknowledgements

The research published in this paper was supported by the ‘Lake Futures’ project under the Global Water Futures program, funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

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N.K.S. and N.B.B. conceptualized the project. N.K.S. designed the methodology. N.K.S. and N.B.B. conducted the investigation. N.K.S. and N.B.B. did the visualization. N.B.B. supervised. N.K.S. wrote the original draft. N.B.B. reviewed and edited the draft.

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Correspondence to Nitin K. Singh.

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Singh, N.K., Basu, N.B. The human factor in seasonal streamflows across natural and managed watersheds of North America. Nat Sustain 5, 397–405 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00848-1

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