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.
Your institute does not have access to this article
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to the entire Nature family of 50+ journals
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
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/).
Vörösmarty, C. J., Green, P., Salisbury, J. & Lammers, R. B. Global water resources: vulnerability from climate change and population growth. Science 289, 284–288 (2000).
Milly, P. C. D., Dunne, K. A. & Vecchia, A. V. Global pattern of trends in streamflow and water availability in a changing climate. Nature 438, 347–350 (2005).
Barnett, T. P. et al. Human-induced changes in the hydrology of the western United States. Science 319, 1080–1083 (2008).
Berghuijs, W. R., Woods, R. A. & Hrachowitz, M. A precipitation shift from snow towards rain leads to a decrease in streamflow. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 583–586 (2014).
Vörösmarty, C. J. et al. in Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Current State and Trends (eds Rijsberman, F. et al.) Ch. 7 (Island Press, 2005); https://www.millenniumassessment.org/documents/document.276.aspx.pdf
Graf, W. L. Dam nation: a geographic census of American dams and their large-scale hydrologic impacts. Water Resour. Res. 35, 1305–1311 (1999).
Dynesius, M. & Nilsson, C. Fragmentation and flow regulation of river systems in the northern third of the world. Science 266, 753–762 (1994).
Adam, J. C., Hamlet, A. F. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Implications of global climate change for snowmelt hydrology in the twenty-first century. Hydrol. Process. 23, 962–972 (2009).
Burn, D. H. & Whitfield, P. H. Changes in cold region flood regimes inferred from long-record reference gauging stations. Water Resour. Res. 53, 2643–2658 (2017).
Lettenmaier, D. P., Wood, E. F. & Wallis, J. R. Hydro-climatological trends in the continental United States, 1948–88. J. Clim. 7, 586–607 (1994).
Sagarika, S., Kalra, A. & Ahmad, S. Evaluating the effect of persistence on long-term trends and analyzing step changes in streamflows of the continental United States. J. Hydrol. 517, 36–53 (2014).
Birsan, M. V., Molnar, P., Burlando, P. & Pfaundler, M. Streamflow trends in Switzerland. J. Hydrol. 314, 312–329 (2005).
Stahl, K. et al. Hydrology and Earth system sciences streamflow trends in Europe: evidence from a dataset of near-natural catchments. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 14, 2367–2382 (2010).
Dettinger, M. D. & Diaz, H. F. Global characteristics of stream flow seasonality and variability. J. Hydrometeorol. 1, 289–310 (2000).
McCabe, G. J. & Wolock, D. M. A step increase in streamflow in the conterminous United States. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 8–11 (2002).
Rice, J. S., Emanuel, R. E., Vose, J. M. & Nelson, S. A. C. Continental US streamflow trends from 1940 to 2009 and their relationships with watershed spatial characteristics. Water Resour. Res. 51, 6262–6275 (2015).
Ficklin, D. L., Abatzoglou, J. T., Robeson, S. M., Null, S. E. & Knouft, J. H. Natural and managed watersheds show similar responses to recent climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 8553–8557 (2018).
Dudley, R. W., Hirsch, R. M., Archfield, S. A., Blum, A. G. & Renard, B. Low streamflow trends at human-impacted and reference basins in the United States. J. Hydrol. 580, 124254 (2020).
Bhaskar, A. S., Hopkins, K. G., Smith, B. K., Stephens, T. A. & Miller, A. J. Hydrologic signals and surprises in US streamflow records during urbanization. Water Resour. Res. 56, 1–22 (2020).
Dethier, E. N., Sartain, S. L., Renshaw, C. E. & Magilligan, F. J. Spatially coherent regional changes in seasonal extreme streamflow events in the United States and Canada since 1950. Sci. Adv. 6, eaba5939 (2020).
Adam, J. C., Haddeland, I., Su, F. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Simulation of reservoir influences on annual and seasonal streamflow changes for the Lena, Yenisei, and Ob’ rivers. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 112, D24114 (2007).
Haddeland, I. et al. Global water resources affected by human interventions and climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 3251–3256 (2014).
Jaramillo, F. & Destouni, G. Local flow regulation and irrigation raise global human water consumption and footprint. Science 350, 1248–1251 (2015).
Veldkamp, T. I. E. et al. Water scarcity hotspots travel downstream due to human interventions in the 20th and 21st century. Nat. Commun. 8, 15697 (2017).
Gudmundsson, L. et al. Globally observed trends in mean and extreme river flow attributed to climate change. Science 371, 1159–1162 (2021).
Luce, C. H. & Holden, Z. A. Declining annual streamflow distributions in the Pacific Northwest United States, 1948–2006. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, 2–7 (2009).
Kim, J. S. & Jain, S. High-resolution streamflow trend analysis applicable to annual decision calendars: a western United States case study. Climatic Change 102, 699–707 (2010).
Zhang, X., Harvey, K. D., Hogg, W. D. & Yuzyk, T. R. Trends in Canadian streamflow. Water Resour. 37, 987–998 (2001).
Yang, Y. et al. Streamflow stationarity in a changing world. Environ. Res. Lett. 16, 064096 (2021).
Vörösmarty, C. J. et al. Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 467, 555–561 (2010).
Magilligan, F. J. & Nislow, K. H. Changes in hydrologic regime by dams. Geomorphology 71, 61–78 (2005).
Wing, O. E. J., Pinter, N., Bates, P. D. & Kousky, C. New insights into US flood vulnerability revealed from flood insurance big data. Nat. Commun. 11, 1444 (2020).
Chalise, D. R., Sankarasubramanian, A. & Ruhi, A. Dams and climate interact to alter river flow regimes across the United States. Earths Future 9, e2020EF001816 (2021).
Rood, S. B. et al. Declining summer flows of Rocky Mountain rivers: changing seasonal hydrology and probable impacts on floodplain forests. J. Hydrol. 349, 397–410 (2008).
Viviroli, D., Dürr, H. H., Messerli, B., Meybeck, M. & Weingartner, R. Mountains of the world, water towers for humanity: typology, mapping, and global significance. Water Resour. Res. 43, 7447 (2007).
Freeman, M. C., Pringle, C. M. & Jackson, C. R. Hydrologic connectivity and the contribution of stream headwaters to ecological integrity at regional scales. J. Am. Water Resour. Assoc. 43, 5–14 (2007).
Lorenzo-Lacruz, J., Vicente-Serrano, S. M., López-Moreno, J. I., Morán-Tejeda, E. & Zabalza, J. Recent trends in Iberian streamflows (1945–2005). J. Hydrol. 414–415, 463–475 (2012).
Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making (World Commission on Dams, 2016).
Suttles, K. M. et al. Assessment of hydrologic vulnerability to urbanization and climate change in a rapidly changing watershed in the Southeast US. Sci. Total Environ. 645, 806–816 (2018).
IPCC Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2021); https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/#SPM
Falcone, J. A., Carlisle, D. M., Wolock, D. M. & Meador, M. R. GAGES: a stream gage database for evaluating natural and altered flow conditions in the conterminous United States. Ecology 91, 621–621 (2010).
Brimley, B. et al. Reference Hydrometric Basin Network (Government of Canada, 1999); https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/water-overview/quantity/monitoring/survey/data-products-services/reference-hydrometric-basin-network.html
PRISM Climate Data (PRISM Climate Group, 2020); https://prism.oregonstate.edu/
Kendall, M. Rank Correlation Methods (Griffin, 2011).
Singh, N. K. & Borrok, D. M. A Granger causality analysis of groundwater patterns over a half-century. Sci. Rep. 9, 12828 (2019).
Hamed, K. H. & Ramachandra Rao, A. A modified Mann-Kendall trend test for autocorrelated data. J. Hydrol. 204, 182–196 (1998).
Sen, P. K. Estimates of the regression coefficient based on Kendall’s tau. J. Am. Stat. Assoc. 63, 1379–1389 (1968).
Biau, G. & Scornet, E. A random forest guided tour. Test 25, 197–227 (2016).
Singh, N. K., Emanuel, R. E., Nippgen, F., McGlynn, B. L. & Miniat, C. F. The relative influence of storm and landscape characteristics on shallow groundwater responses in forested headwater catchments. Water Resour. Res. 54, 9883–9900 (2018).
Falcone, J. A. Geospatial Attributes of Gages for Evaluating Streamflow (US Geological Survey, 2011).
Liaw, A. & Wiener, M. Classification and regression by randomForest. R News 2, 18–22 (2002).
Friedman, J. H. Greedy function approximation: a gradient boosting machine. Ann. Stat. 29, 1189–1232 (2001).
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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information
Nature Sustainability thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
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